Bushtits Live A Woven Life
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Walking a local lagoon pathway, I came upon an intent birder, binoculars affixed to his eyes, focused on a group of bushes emitting a cacophony of what sounded like spik, sidl, seedl, tsidi, cheer, zoo zee. Though hard to see, these bushes were teaming with diminutive birds, foraging in a mixed flock. Among them, the most inconspicuous, weighing in at five grams, were bushtits, flitting branch to branch, acrobatically hanging on the underside of leaves foraging for hidden treasure troves of insects.
Bushtits’ lives are integral to the fabric of the habitats in which they live, year round, as residents in most parts of California. They travel and forage in flocks and may form mixed flocks with warblers, chickadees, and kinglets. Congregating together provides protection from predators and cold temperatures. Being liliputian in size, their bodies lose heat quickly with a higher surface area to volume ratio, which means cuddling next to your friend keeps you warmer at night. By day bushtits are in constant motion, foraging for insects, eating more often to maintain their lost body heat.
Being part of a community is also important for bushtit survival when nesting in the spring. The dark-eyed male and the yellow-eyed female cooperatively weave a nest in the branches of a tree or bush. With other nesting bushtits nearby, they get help raising their young, typically by an adult male. This cooperative nesting arrangement helps to protect from predation and contributes to keeping those young mouths fed. Building a woven bushtit nest is quite an accomplishment, requiring the search for spider webs, moss, lichens, roots, plus animal hair and feathers for a lining. The babies, parents, and helpers keep warm in the nest where they all sleep at night.
Bushtits' grey, rounded bodies are camouflaged so well you might likely miss their presence in your garden. However, your garden will clearly reap the benefits. Bushtits are miniature pest control for aphids, scale insects, ticks, and fleas! In the spring and early summer during nesting season, you can bet they are collecting a multitude of calorie rich insects to feed their nestlings. No need to use insecticides when you have bushtits as neighbors. Insecticides disrupt the food chain by killing insects that are an important source of nutrition for bushtits and many local bird species. The impact is most dire in the spring when the birds are feeding nestlings. Including native plants, that attract beneficial insects to your garden, will allow for hours of bushtit watching.
Though bushtits are small, one cannot ignore the ecosystem services they provide. Their populations are stable within their current range in California. However, they are susceptible to factors, like many birds in California, of habitat loss and increases in temperature. We can help mitigate habitat loss by providing them with nesting areas, food, and nest materials. A small mess in your garden is a welcome sight for native birds. What a lovely way to support this ecosystem weaver, the small, yet integral bushtit.