The bushtit is relatively plain but has a distinctive long tail and hyper, perky behavior. Different subspecies of bushtits have significant differences in plumage and songs, and one day this member of the Aegithalidae bird family may be split into unique species. The more bushtit facts birders are aware of, the better they will be able to distinguish these birds now and in the future should such a split become official.
- Scientific Name: Psaltriparus minimus
- Common Name: Bushtit, Black-Eared Bushtit, American Bushtit
- Lifespan: 7-8 years
- Size: 4-4.5 inches
- Weight: .1-.2 ounces
- Wingspan: 6-7 inches
- Conservation Status: Least concern
These small birds are relatively plain but do have distinct features that help make their identification easier. The black bill is short and stubby, and they have a short neck and round head that can give them a more compact, chunky appearance. This is balanced by a very long tail, which can seem out of proportion with the bird's overall tiny size.
Males and females have similar plumage, though males have black eyes and females have pale white or light yellow eyes. The upperparts are gray or gray-brown and may show a light brown cap in some subspecies. Birds in the southernmost part of the bird's range often show black cheeks, though the extent of the black coloration can vary from a broken eye line or small splotches to a full black mask. The wings are slightly darker than the overall plumage and show faint white edging, though it is not always easily visible. The underparts are somewhat paler but plain. On both genders, the legs and feet are black.
Juveniles look similar to adult males, including the dark eyes, but typically have a more disheveled appearance and the tail may be somewhat shorter. As young females mature, their eyes will lighten.
These birds have a variety of "tsit" call notes and a high-pitched, raspy squeaking song. Their song has also been described as musical ticking or a rapid series of raspy ticks. They vocalize frequently, keeping in touch even in flight or while foraging.
Bushtit Habitat and Distribution
These tiny passerines prefer woodland or scrub habitat with deciduous or mixed deciduous and coniferous trees. They are also often found in riparian areas as well as suburban parks and gardens, often in foothills and valleys.
Bushtits stay in their range year-round, stretching from southernmost British Columbia around Vancouver south to northern California and along the entire California coast. Inland, these birds are found in western Washington and Oregon, throughout Nevada and Utah, and south to eastern Arizona. Their range extends to western Colorado and New Mexico, as well as into western and central Texas. The southern part of the range extends through central Mexico and as far south as Guatemala.
While these birds do not migrate to different breeding and non-breeding ranges, populations at higher elevations do practice some altitudinal migration seasonally. The extent of this movement can vary widely, however, and the birds may not move at all in milder seasons or when food sources are abundant.
These gregarious birds gather in related family flocks from 10-40 birds or more, and they will also mix with other small, active birds such as kinglets, warblers, and chickadees. Their flight is weak and fluttering, with an undulating path. On cold nights, bushtits will roost in a close huddle to share body heat.
Diet and Feeding
Bushtits are primarily insectivorous and seek out many types of larvae and insects, including spiders. In fall and winter when insect populations are not as abundant, these birds will eat more seeds, berries, and fruit.
While foraging, they are acrobatic and energetic, rapidly fluttering between bushes and trees as they pick and glean insects from the undersides of leaves and branches. They may even dangle upside down as they seek out the next morsel.
Bushtits are monogamous and can be sensitive when breeding. A mated pair may abandon their nest if they feel threatened or disturbed. Both genders work together to construct a pouch-like, elongated hanging nest from twigs, grass, moss, fur, and feathers. The structure is often decorated with flower petals, and is held together with spider silk. Overall, the nest size is surprisingly large for such a small bird.
Eggs and Young
The eggs are plain white ovals, with 4-10 eggs in each brood. Both parents incubate the eggs for 11-13 days, and after the altricial young hatch, both parents work to feed the youngsters for 14-18 days. A mated pair may raise 1-2 broods each year, and if a second brood is hatched, older siblings from the first brood may help feed the next set of chicks.
Bushtits are common and widespread throughout their range, and are not considered threatened or endangered in any way. Their population numbers are stable, and their overall adaptability helps them survive changing circumstances. Irresponsible pesticide use or widespread habitat destruction can be problematic, however, and should be carefully monitored to protect bushtits and other bird species.
Tips for Backyard Birders
These birds readily visit yards and gardens within their range where scrub-like plants are available. Adding juniper, oak, and seed-bearing flowers to the landscape can help attract bushtits, and they will visit suet feeders, especially if those feeders are close to a tree's trunk. Minimizing insecticide use can ensure a good food source for these birds, but birders should note that bushtits can appear and disappear in a feeding area quickly, so they may not always be easily seen.
How to Find This Bird
Because bushtits are so active and mobile, it can be difficult to predict where they may appear. Listening for their chittering voices can help birders tune in to bushtit sightings, and visiting the appropriate habitat is essential. Visiting suburban parks and nature centers with stocked feeding areas can lead to bushtit sightings, particularly if the feeders offer suet cakes.
Explore More Species in This Family
Birders who want to study birds similar to the bushtit and other birds in the Aegithalidae family should be sure to check out these close relatives and other small, active passerines: