Decimating Birds: Episode VI – To Tell a Titmouse

8 June 2007


Let’s set aside strange phallic flowers and take up small gray birds with snicker-inducing names.

So, here’s most beautiful bird #6, the celebrated Lava Beds Titmouse, Baeolophus something-or-other. To many, it may be be a dicky bird. To William Gambel it would have been a plain-old Plain Titmouse, which was good enough until 1996. For the contemporary birder, it’s something of a headache.

Even very dedicated readers are forgiven for forgetting that we’re still in the process of enumerating ‘10 most beautiful birds‘ as an expression of the popular blog meme of the same name. Previous installments are here: i, here: ii, here: iii and here: iv.

Paridae is a widespread family of passerines spread across most of the Northern Hemisphere, and extending down into Africa and parts of southern Asia. The Europeans of course have Great Tits (Parus major) the subject of countless ecology studies first named by old Lappy-head himself, Carolus Linnaeus,


not to be confused with

by the way.

(for more on the 300 birthday of Linnaeus peep Carel, John Hawks and this rather muddled NPR story that earns some bonus points with amphisbaenians).

The ancient Latin name ‘Parus’ borrowed by Linnaeus means something on the order of ‘little tiny bird.’ Likewise, the names ‘tit’ and ‘titmouse’ come by way of German or French or Icelandic or something for ‘little dicky bird’ and bear no etymological relation to the corrupted version of teat so popular in the Sudwerk parking lot and elsewhere.

In the states, we boast two distinctive genera of parids (both formerly, and occasionally still, lazily lumped into Parus), the quasi-onomatopoeic (is there a better word for birds named for their calls?) Chickadees (Poecile) and the generally drabber pointy-headed Titmeese (Baeolophus) (or titmice or titmouses or whatever). One or the other, often both, can be found in virtually every woodland habitat in North America.

Black-capped Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse by Gianna and Augie respectively.

Well before his remains were washed down the Yuba River, William Gambel introduced American Ornithology to two parids widespread throughout the American West. He discovered the first, the Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli), en route to California via the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1840s (a journey I made myself at the age of 21, about the same age as William, although with the crutch of internal combustion and without the discovery of a single new species of oaks or quail to my credit).

Just a few years later, while working as a secretary for the U.S. Navy Commodore who mistakenly (or presciently) seized Monterey from Mexico, Gambel saw an unfamiliar titmouse among a mixed flock of small birds:

It was actively flitting about among the evergreen oaks of the vicinity, in company with large flocks of the Chestnut-backed (Poecile rufescens) and Least Titmouse (i.e. Bushtit or Psaltriparus minimus), all in restless activity, searching every branch for insects. Among the busy throng I could not well distinguish it’s notes….and on my following it up, uttered a loud scold, erecting its high and pointed crest, looking as angry as possible at the intrusion. (Gambel 1847)

Gambel named his testy titmouse ‘Parus’ inornatus, so literally “drab little bird”, and there the matter perched comfortably until the 1990s.

Then, based on genetic and vocalization studies Carla Cicero and others began to unpack the plain titmouse, they found justification to split the genus in twain. Most California birds fell into Baeolophus inornatus sensu stricto, ‘Oak Titmouse’ while east of the Sierra Nevada became Baeolophus ridgwayi the ‘Juniper Titmouse’.

The two ‘sister’ species are geographically disparate, except in the Modoc plateau where I snagged the above photograph in the campground at Lava Beds National Monument. One of the supposed distinguishing characteristics, bill length and shape, is conveniently obscured in the picture. Luckily, Don Roberson has a detailed treatment of the Lava Beds titmices.

While suggestively perched in a Juniper tree, this bird may well be an Oak Titmouse at the Eastern most limit of its range. Or it may in fact be a Juniper Titmouse with a deceptively Oaky song. Or, perhaps there is some clinal speciation going on up there, although Cicero contends that is an area of secondary contact.

Whichever, it’s a good reminder of the reality of nature that lots of folk have noted as we mark the 300th b-day of Carl. The world is a messy place filled with organisms that don’t quite all fit neatly into nice italicized, latinate, lowercase monikers that make us feel smart and magical when we say them.

Also, to all you budding naturalists out there: heed the warning of William Gambel. Don’t go into medicine, unless you want to catch typhoid and have your bones hydraulicked down the delta.

POSTSCRIPT: I was specifically asked not to cite Crude Futures, but I can’t resist. Gifted fifth-graders discussing AIDs. Priceless.

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