The titmouse and the dog ball

JUTI nest, under construction

JUTI nest, under construction

On April 2, I came across this nest in progress in one of our nest boxes.  Although I’m not absolutely certain, I believe it’s a Juniper Titmouse (JUTI) nest, since I have heard a JUTI calling repeatedly in the area—and it doesn’t much look like the nest of our other early nester, the White-breasted Nuthatch.  I don’t often laugh out loud when I first open a box, but this was an exception.  Most of our cavity nesters build rather drab nests, relying on strips of juniper bark and (for the early nesters) all sorts of animal hair—mule deer, horse, cow, whatever doesn’t run away fast enough.  Later in the season, Ash-throated Flycatchers sometimes will have some odd things in their nests, the oddest of which are clumps of horse or cow manure.  (Perhaps it draws in their eponymous flies?)  Also later in the season, Violet-green Swallows—as is true for other species of swallow—will snatch as many feathers as they can for their nests.  (One of my favorite photos from the 2008 season shows this feather fetish in its extreme.  We dubbed her “the feather queen of Box 19.”)

This early in the season, though, this nest is neither of those.  The blurry material at the bottom of this nest is some of Paxi’s undercoat.  (If you click on the photo, you’ll see a larger view.)  Cattle dogs are well known for “blowing their coats” a couple of times a year; spring is one of those intense shedding periods for Pax.  I brush him and pack the hair into an old suet cage that hangs on a tree.  Last year, we got a great look at a JUTI stuffing her beak with dog hair from the “hair box” and then heading off for a nest box.  (Probably more so than any of our other cavity nesters, JUTIs tend to cover their eggs with a layer of fur when they’re away from the box, perhaps to both keep them warm and make them less visible to a predator looking in.)  Later that day, I found and identified the nest by the huge lining of this wonderfully soft undercoat.  Looked awfully inviting, even to me.2009_juti_2

But this seeming attraction to color is a first for me.  This JUTI is showing a real decorating flare in her nest.  She has been plucking the fuzz off one of the dog balls that lies out in the dog run on the other side of the house from this box!  You can even see the bald spot on the ball—at least so far, she seems to have chosen the yellow fuzz most often.  (Again, you may need to click on the photo for a slightly more detailed view.)  She has a couple of tufts of the purple, too.  But she also seems to like aqua.  (I’m not sure what that’s from, but you can bet I’m going to keep my eyes peeled in the area.)  Of course, it may not be color at all but whatever fuzz is easiest to access and/or pluck off.  But I prefer the “Martha Stewart” explanation.

Well, at least the ball’s of use to some critter—neither of the dogs is particularly fond of it.

On May 16, we saw a JUTI wrestling dog hair out of the dog hair/suet cage.  It would have been a 20090516_JUTI_105_2rvery odd time for a JUTI to be building a nest.  For instance, I knew that the nestlings in the box nearest the house were probably about 7 days old.  What could she be doing with this extra hair?  When I opened the nest box later that day to get a count, I figured it out.  She had added an extra layer of dog hair at the top of the nest.  (Click on the photo to see a larger version; use your browser’s “back” button to return to this page.)  It was plenty warm by then; it didn’t seem like the nestlings needed the fur for warmth.  But one advantage—it was very difficult to detect the nestlings in the nest cup.  The cup was now so deep and surrounded by masses of mostly dark fur that I was unable to see even one nestling clearly—even with the larger mirror we use for photographing.  Whether or not she had that in her grand scheme, it seemed like an effective hiding strategy.

Two weeks (May 29) later, she seemed to be at it again.  This time, the fur wasn’t covering the (now, quite large) nestlings but seemed just to be along the sides in a bit of a curlicue (photo on the left).  What was she thinking?  We’ll never know.  In the photo in the middle, you can see either remnants of the dog ball fuzz from earlier or new fuzz she had added.  The “tower o’fur” had fallen by the next day (right); this photo shows the 4 nestlings—fledged during the next week—pretty clearly.  Interior decorating, JUTI-style…


© 2010 Tina Mitchell


One Response to The titmouse and the dog ball

  1. I love it! Chickadee’s also do the “fur plug/blankie” thang. I believe it helps hide the eggs from predators, and also maintains temps.

    Both titmice and chickadees have both been known to yank fur out of living animals like squirrel tails, and hair off of human heads. One chickadee was dismantling a fur coat drying out on the line – I assume the owner did NOT find that funny.

    I found what looked like neatly cut shanks of human hair in a Tufted Titmouse nest – made me wonder if someone had a haircut in their back yard. I sometimes put hair from the hairdressers in suet cages also, along with fur from our goat. I have done sheep wool too, but worry that it might get tangled up in tiny feet. I do NOT recommend putting dryer lint out – too many chemicals and if it gets wet it doesn’t behave well.


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