LONG-TAILED TITS  Aegithalidae
The Long-tailed Tits are a small group of tiny passerines found mostly in Palearctic Eurasia but with a single species in western North America and another isolated in the mountains of Java. They move actively through trees and bushes in little family groups, and if you have any tinge of anthropomorphism in you, you'll think they are "cute."  On a brief visit to mid elevations in the Indian Himalayas we thought the little flocks of Black-throated Tit (left in a stunning shot by Ron Saldino) to be just adorable. This family is closely related to the tits, titmice, and chickadees [Paridae] and although they often occur together in the same general habitat, the closely knit family units of the Aegithalidae tend to forage most often in single species groups. Five of the 8 species are primarily birds of the Himalayas or the mountains of China but some are pine-forest birds (like Black-throated Tit) while others specialize on juniper, birch, or oaks. 
The European representative, whose range stretches all the way across Eurasia to China, is Long-tailed Tit (right; in a nice photo © Blake Matheson). They, like most of the species in the family, move quickly through the woods in small, noisy parties. I say "noisy" because they are very vocal, but the sound is soft an sibilant, and is likely heard only by the 'tuned-in' birders. These little flocks usually move rapidly and, if you're not quick, suddenly they are gone. In woods near the Great Wall of China, we had great trouble showing them to members of our party because of these attributes. On the other hand, they are a standard feature of suburban parks and gardens in Europe, and were among the first birds I saw in France during my teenage wander through the Bois du Bologne way back in 1969.
The sole North American representative is the Bushtit (left), a tiny long-tailed bundle of nervous energy in western oak or riparian woodlands. Bushtits build a very impressive pendant nest an elaborate pocket hung from a hood of woven spider web from an overhanging branch. A photo of a Bushtit nest (below); note the tiny adult directly below the huge nest. Eurasian members of the family also build impressive woven handing nests and line them with feathers (usually feathers of other species). One Long-tailed Tit nest had 2,379 feathers in its lining! In most species there are "helpers" at the nest (often the young from prior years) although this is not common in Bushtit.
Addicott (1938) gave many details of the breeding biology of Bushtits. I rather like her description of the fledging process:
"When the nestlings are ready to fly, the slightest disturbance sends them out of the nest. As one juvenile starts to leave, the impulse spreads rapidly to the others. So quickly do they pop out of the nest that one has the feeling that the nest has suddenly exploded. There is an incessant medley of juvenile thrills. They fly awkwardly ... and scatter in all directions.... The parents ... dash from one young bird to another in an evident effort to protect them and to get them together. This is quite a task.. and the parents spend up to a half hour gathering the scattered family in low bushes or in a small tree."
There are three separated populations of Bushtit in North America: the "Plain bushtit" minimus of coastal and foothill oaks west of the Sierra Nevada (both photos on this page); "Lead-colored bushtit" plumbeus in the Great Basin which are much grayer and seemingly specialize on junipers, and the "Black-eared bushtit" melanotis of west Texas to the mountains of Guatemala. Even Sibley & Monroe (1990) acknowledge these might represent separate species. At one time the "Black-eared bushtit" was split from the others but the "black-eared" character proved to be relatively unimportant since young male "Lead-colored bushtit" could also share this feature. Raitt (1967) showed a narrow zone of secondary intergradation around the U.S./Mexico in west Texas. The groups do occur in differing habitats and further investigations are warranted.
Small flocks of these tits are readily found because they are constantly vocalizing with soft conversational call-notes. In the winter in California bushtit flocks range from about 5 to 25 birds but most often when I've counted them individually they run 12-13 individuals. Adult females are pale-eyed but adult males and youngsters are dark-eyed. I only have photos in my collection of two species of Aegithalidae -- the two species shown above -- but there are multiples so lets repeat them with other good examples. The dark-eyed Bushtit (below left) is a fine Bill Hill example and the Black-throated Tit (below right) is another lovely portrait by Ron Saldino.
The final member of the family is the Pygmy Tit Psaltria exilis, endemic to the island of Java in Indonesia. It closely resembles the American bushtit and, like the bushtit, usually has two broods each year. I have seen it in Gede Nat'l Park but didn't take any useful notes. Rather little has been published on this species but there is a clear consensus that it is an isolated member of this family.

Photos: The photos of Black-throated Tit Aegithalos concinnus were taken by Ron Saldino in Naini Tal, northwestern India, in February 2001. Blake Matheson shot the  Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus at Port Meadow, Oxfordshire, UK, on 2 Feb 2005. The top photo of Bushtit Psaltriparus minimus was at the Zmudowski State Beach, Monterey Co., California, U.S.A., in Dec 2004; the nest was at Frog Pond Nature Area, Del Rey Oaks, Monterey Co., in March 2003; and the bottom photo of Bushtit was taken by Bill Hill at the Carmel River mouth, Monterey Co., in 2000. The top Bushtit photo & the nest shot are © 2004 Don Roberson; the Black-throated Tit photos are © 2004 Ron Saldino (used with permission), the Long-tailed Tit is © 2005 Black Matheson, and the bottom Bushtit is © 2004 Bill Hill (used with permission); all rights reserved.

Bibliographic notes

Family book: Rating 
Harrap, Simon, and David Quinn. 1995. Chickadees, Tits, Nuthatches & Treecreepers. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

This is a pleasant and solid addition to the family books in the Princeton series and it covers the Aegithalidae as well as the families named in the title. The plates appear separately in the front. I found the artwork rather good in a "field guide" style (without much background) opposite summary pages which include small maps. The maps I looked at were quite good (e.g., they and the text covered isolated populations of Mountain Chickadee in California, an unexpected bit of accuracy I've come to not expect in such family tomes). Distinct races are nicely covered and the discussion of the races of Long-tailed Tit and variation in Bushtit is quite good. The text cover identification, habitat, breeding biology (very summarized), relationships, and detailed plumage descriptions, plus references which (in contrast to other similar efforts) look reasonably extensive. I don't personally see the need for the detailed plumage descriptions since no book like this can hope to cover the complete range of variation, and they are very tedious to read, but it is the "style" of these family books. There are some helpful extra maps and sketches of plumage details scattered in the text.
    I was a bit put off by the use of Sibley & Monroe (1990) family taxonomy (since subject to criticism) and the unnecessary "lumping" of the penduline tits with the "true" tits. On the other hand, the authors recommend following Sibley & Monroe's (1990) species level split of Tufted and Black-crested titmice, and give a full explanation for their opinion. This sort of in-depth treatment is admirable. It is the quality of the text that prompts me to give this a "four-star" rating, just about as high of a rating that I'll give to this type of family book.
Other literature cited:
Addicott, . 1938. Behavior of the Bush-tit in the breeding season. Condor 40: 49-63.

Raitt, R. J. 1967. Relationships between Black-eared and Plain-eared forms of Bushtits (Psaltriparus). Auk 84: 503-528.

Sibley, C.G., and B.L. Monroe. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.



Page created 1-3 June 2001, upgraded 12 Dec 2004 & 3 Feb 2005