Bushtits: Teeny Architects with an Alternate Lifestyle

I don’t think I’ll ever forget my first encounter with the magical little ball of fluff called the bushtit. I was in Victoria, BC for a work project—not thinking about birding at all. That’s not like me, I know, but I was loading a vehicle beside a busy street. And suddenly I heard a dry chirp in the tree above me, followed by more of those strange dry little chirps… and there they were. Social, tiny, animated, and just so very cute, those little bushtits kind of won my heart.

So. Much. Cuteness.

Birds of a warmer climate

They’re not a bird we Canadians are familiar with, generally. I lived on the prairies at the time, and I was lucky to see them—they’re only found in Canada in the extreme southwestern part of British Columbia. And now that I live in exactly that spot, I see them fairly regularly. I’ve even had the chance to photograph the little dears, as has my partner, who took the photos above.

Among all the endearing qualities of this little bird, two things stand out: their highly social nature, and the absolutely amazing nests they make. Here, have a look, below. This is just beside Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park, Vancouver—one of my favourite urban birding spots.

Isn’t that wild?

That nest.

Imagine the architecture involved in putting together this wonder of nature.

It begins by stretching spider silk across a few branches… then adding a few more. As a sort of flexible platform takes shape, they start to pull that platform downward. Spider silk is a wonderful building material for small birds. It’s flexible but has a tensile strength greater than steel: perfect for housing precious eggs and babies.

Bits of lichen and moss start to flesh out the design, here brought to the nest by the male. (Males have dark eyes, females yellow.)

Bushtit with nesting material.
Beak full of building material.

Really, really social

It’s a laborious undertaking. Groups of bushtits tend to live close to one another—they hang out in flocks of 10-40 birds year-round. Nesting birds are selectively territorial in that they’ll tolerate some flock members close by, while others are chased away. Nobody really understands what the logic is there, but they must have their reasons.

bushtit with alder catkin
Hands off my catkin.

Open relationships, sort of

And sometimes they have nest-helpers. Bird scientists call these supernumeraries, which is just from the Latin for “extra.” Sometimes it’s one of their own young from a previous hatching; sometimes it’s a relative. Most often it’s another nesting adult whose nest has failed. It appears that this sharing of responsibilities is a bit of a compromise: when a bird loses a nest, it tries to take over a neighbour’s. If it wins, it becomes the owner… but the old owner might stick around to help raise babies. If it fails in its takeover bid, it might stick around as a helper.

This nest cooperation/competition can happen throughout the nesting cycle, and the co-parents even roost with each other, several adults together, all spending the night in that beautiful sock-like nest. It’s a strange dynamic, but as my wise uncle once said, “There’s a hell of a lot of ways to live a life.” He wasn’t wrong.

As some of the smallest birds in the woods, they need to be on the lookout for all the usual predators of nesting birds: crows, jays, squirrels, raccoons… really anything that’s able to get at that nest. Birds’ eggs are nutritious, and a single bushtit nest can have upwards of ten eggs, probably from different mommas.

Female bushtit
So floofy.

Get birding

I hope you’re able to see these amazing wee creatures. They’re here year-round and can be quite visible in winter. Here in British Columbia, the Swan Lake Sanctuary in Victoria is a good spot (and has some great birding in general.)

If you’re in the USA, you can find bushtits across the West. And you Old-World birders have its cousins—several kinds of long-tailed tits— to look for, though this particular species is strictly a New World bird.

Good luck. I hope you can get a glimpse of that remarkable nest.

Let me brighten your Friday.

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3 thoughts on “Bushtits: Teeny Architects with an Alternate Lifestyle”

  1. Dear Don – your birding newsletter has quickly become a very welcome weekly treasure in my Inbox. Love the articles and photos! Today’s offering on the Bushtit and its nesting habits was delightful…. It has filled me with the ambition to go out birding at Swan Lake too.
    Malcolm and I are also feeding the birds most diligently. As well as the ubiquitous flock of juncos we have several Varied Thrushes making themselves at home around the feeder and under the sun-roof on the porch. They aren’t usually so bold. I generally hear them in the woods rather than seeing them “in-person”. But they’ve quickly adapted to the feeder, even perching on the suet with aplomb! Towhees, nuthatches, a finch or two, and a few chickadees as well come crowding around the feeder all day long. I call it the bird-fountain. A daily delight!
    Cheers and seasonal best wishes for a joyful Yuletide and a Merry Christmas to you and Tom. Best wishes for a Happy & healthy bird-filled New Year from a fellow bird-nerd!


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