Titmouse Crossing

Over the weekend Dave and I went birding in a new location: Washington Crossing State Park, which has important historical significance. During the American Revolutionary War, on December 25, 1776, General George Washington and his troops left Pennsylvania and crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey. This was a pivotal event in the War for Independence, especially since Washington was rapidly losing troops. The Continental Army touched down at Johnson’s Landing, which is now the site of Washington Crossing State Park, and marched to Trenton, NJ to mount a surprise attack on the Hessians. The attack was successful and lead to two more battles in the area. There is also a Washington Crossing State Park on the Pennsylvania side as well. We stood in New Jersey on our visit.

Besides having museums and other historical places to visit, Washington Crossing State Park is also a nice place to hike. At 3,575 acres, there are 15 miles of trails that go through mixed forests and is home to a number of mammals/birds.

As far as birding goes, we didn’t see too many birds while hiking through the forest. We’ve found that we see the most variety whenever we are near a water source. The trails we took were strictly forest, but it was very peaceful and fun to explore. We did see some species though: a variety of woodpeckers, chickadees,  Brown Creepers, Eastern Phoebes, and White-breasted Nuthatches to name a few. We even saw discovered a raccoon that was high up in a tree sleeping in a ball. There were numerous Pileated Woodpecker holes, though we weren’t lucky enough to see one. But the most abundant bird species from our walk was the Tufted Titmouse.

Singing Tufted Titmouse (Image by Basar via wikimedia commons)

Tufted Titmice call Eastern deciduous and evergreen forests their year-round homes, so it wasn’t too surprising that we were seeing them. What did surprise us that the variety of songs and calls we heard from them. The most common Titmouse song is peter-peter-peter!, which can be repeated up 11 times in a row. Of course we heard this song, but we kept hearing other calls and songs that we didn’t recognize. After searching the trees, it almost always turned out that these “new songs” were by Titmice.

According to Donald Kroodsma, author of The Singing Life of Birds, Tufted Titmice have about 9-10 songs, but will commonly use 5-6. They will repeat the same song over and over before switching to a new one. Males will participate in “matched-countersinging” , where they will answer each other with the same song. At one point we were in a stretch of forest where there were multiple Titmouse singing to each other, so it was cool to experience this firsthand. Sometimes females will sing to, which is uncommon compared to other songbirds.

A study in 1983 by Donna J. Schroeder and R. Haven Wiley about Titmouse repertoires found that Tufted Titmouse songs can be broken down into 3 themes. “Class 1 themes” are the most common and used for advertisement. They are used in their territories and often early in the day/breeding season.  “Class 2 Themes” are generally used by the female away from her mate or by males trying to escalate an encounter. “Class 3 Themes” are used less frequently and used to indicate aggressive or to terminate an encounter. The Class 3 themes are usually used by males in countersinging. (If you’d like to read the study, check out the links at the end of this post).

I think the reason we didn’t realize at first that we were hearing different Titmice sounds was the fact that we kept hearing different tones. Many people are used to the clear peter sound, but Titmice can also sound nasally, harsh, mechanical, and scratchy (like their close cousins, the chickadee).

Even though we didn’t see too many birds on our trip, it was exciting to discover so many Tufted Titmice Songs. Next time you hear an unfamiliar song while in the forest, it’s possible you might be hearing a Titmouse. I’m not sure yet if I would use Washington Crossing State Park as a birding spot again, but it might be interesting to try the Pennsylvania side. If you’re looking for a nice place to hike or for the historical events/locations I would recommend Washington Crossing State Park.

If you’d like to see some of the sources I used to learn about Tufted Titmouse songs you can check out the following links.

The Singing Life of Birds, Donald Kroodsma. 

Schroeder and Wiley 1983 Titmouse Study

Sibley Guides article

Listening in Nature blog

Author: BirdNation

I am an avid birder, teacher, and nature lover. I'm a New Jersey native and recent New Hampshire transplant. I am currently a biology student with interests in conservation biology, ornithology, and environmental sciences. My dream is to go birding in all 50 states.

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