I'm not an expert birder—and certainly not an expert on tufted titmice. Oh sure, titmice are regular year-around feeder visitors. I see them every day and am quite familiar with their usual peter-peter-peter whistle. But yesterday, I was entertained during my deckside lunch break by a noisy and scrappy session of atypical (to me, anyway) titmouse behavior.
I was kicked back in the rocker on the deck, with a favorite book, eating, reading, and keeping the occasional eye on the river, the island across from the cottage, and the various hummingbird and seed feeders nearby. The bird supply was steady and varied, though mostly cardinals, titmice, chickadees, house finches, nuthatches, and every so often, a red-belied or downy woodpecker. One of the larger feeders, stuffed with sunflower seeds, hung within five or six feet of where I sat.
The scenario began with a shouting match—an odd sort of back-and-forth sparring which didn't sound at all like the usual titmouse call. Moreover, until I actually spotted the participants, I wasn't even sure the sounds were coming from a titmouse, or that more than one bird was involved. Whatever the argument as about, it was a fast-moving exchange. Within moments, a pair of titmice appeared, hopping from branch-to-branch where they'd face off for a few seconds, maybe two-to-three inches apart, each voicing their complaints—or possibly calling their opponent unflattering names—in an astonishingly loud vocalization. In fact, the loudest bird sound I've ever heard emanate from a titmouse; wren-loud and then some!
After a brief exchange of bemeanings and name-calling, the birds would scoot along the branch, or fly to another, and repeat the process. As I said, this call was not at all like the usual titmouse whistle—rather a call I've never heard before. One other thing I noted was that one bird was much louder than the other; the unquestioned cranked-up volume master—a veritable Pavarotti of the hurled insult.
Following a few minutes of close-range clamor, the pair would suddenly dart into the air, flying over the river, a dozen feet from the trees and about the same height in the air…at which point they would whirl until they were facing one another, fluttering while windmills to stay aloft, inches apart, and continue this aerial standoff, whirring wingfeathers intermingling, until they began to lose altitude and sank to within a inch or two of the stream's surface. On several occasions I believe a tailfeather or two actually got wet.
At this perilous point they would call a temporary truce, return to the hackberry branches near the seed feeder, and resume their beak-to-beak debate. This chain of events was repeated at least a dozen times. Finally, the weaker-lunged titmouse either lost the argument or his voice—or at any rate decided he'd had enough in-his-face shouting for the day, and flew off.
Most avian battles are about territory, mates, or food. I have no Idea which prompted this particular disagreement. But I do know I've never seen titmice act this way, never heard the distinctive—but different—call being used by both parties, and never heard such a big voice on so small a bird.