Hungry for love

Yes, I’ve been gone for a few days.  I left Charlotte for a short trip to Georgia.  While I looked at birds the whole time, I didn’t bring my computer with me, so now you’ll get bits of things that I saw popping up at random times in the future.

Anyhoo…on to the titmice!  On my trip, I went to visit a friend in Athens, GA.  You know, Athens, home of REM and the B-52’s, among others.  Heartland of Southern Rock.  It was actually my first trip to Athens, but I’m still going to stand by it’s stand-out musical history!  Aside from the palpitations I got from the town itself, I got to spend some time walking around the UGA campus, the Georgia State Arboretum and just meandering in the trees near my friend’s place.  There were lots of trees budding and blossoming and the weather was gorgeous, mainly sunny and warm the weekend that I was there.  One evening, while sitting on his deck, I noticed a noisy little pair of titmice.  They were moving together up and down through the branches of the oaks surrounding the house.  The thing that really caught my eye about these birds, however, was how close they stayed to each other as they moved.  There were little ‘bzzt’ calls back and forth, but they didn’t part by more than a few branches at any time as I watched them.  The neatest part of the whole event was when one of them siddled up next to the other and fed it.  Ah! Courtship feeding.  It’s like a titmouse dinner date.

There are a few reports of this kind of courtship feeding in titmice and in other parids (birds from the same family- the Paridae- like chickadees).

Brackbill, H.  1970.  Tufted Titmouse breeding behavior. Auk 87:  522-536.

Brackbill, H.  1940.  Courtship feeding by the Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse. Auk 57:  169-178.

These birds do tend to form pair-bonds that may last more than a season, though on first glance, it’s hard for me to know whether these birds were a long-term couple or just getting started.  Either way, it’s very likely that the male was…hmmm…shall we say, ‘trying to get things started’.  I mean, a little wining and dining is always a good way to begin a mating season.  In fact, for a male, this sort of wining and dining may be both a good way to facilitate good quality eggs (and therefore good quality offspring) AND a requirement imposed by the female in order to acquire a mating in the first place.  Susan Smith describes (and evaluates) three hypotheses about the functions of courtship behaviors in different birds and finds that while there may certainly be a pair-bond maintenance function to courtship feeding, there is most likely also a ‘demand’ component that the female imposes on the male (associated with the amount and quality of food that the male provides).

Smith, S.G.  1980.  Demand behavior:  A new interpretation of courtship feeding. Condor:  82: 291-295.

Fun stuff.  So what’s the take-home message?  Well, that sweet little titmouse couple moving through the trees may not have been so happy and sweet after all.  All those little “bzzts” that I kept hearing could have been “bring me a bigger beetle, John”.

“yes dear”


“yes dear”


About thomasbiology

I'm an Associate Professor of Biology at Queens University of Charlotte with a background in animal behavior with an emphasis in bird song. I've got two secret goals with this blog (well, since I'm sharing them, they're not so secret): 1. To encourage people to look at the natural world around them- not just as a hiking destination, but to notice all the little things moving around them all the time; and 2. To show some of the science that relates to these little things moving around. There's some really fascinating research out there that so few people get to see.
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