TITMOUSE (O. Eng. mase and tytmase, Ger. Meise, Swed. mes, Du. mees, Fr. mésange), the name long in use for several species of small English birds, which are further distinguished from one another by some characteristic appellation. These go to make up the genus Parus of Linnaeus, and with a large number of other genera form the Passerine family Paridae. Titmice are usually non-migratory, and the genus Parus occupies most of the globe except South America and the Australian region east of Lombok and Flores.
Among the more common European and English forms the first to be mentioned is that called, from its comparatively large size, the great titmouse, P. major, but known also in many parts as the oxeye, conspicuous by its black head, white cheeks and yellow breast, down which runs a black line, while in spring the cock makes himself heard by a loud love-note that resembles the noise made in sharpening a saw. It is widely distributed throughout the British Islands and over nearly the whole of Europe and northern Asia. The next is the blue titmouse, bluecap or nun, P. coeruleus, smaller than the last and more common. Its names are so characteristic as to make any description needless. A third common species, but not so numerous as either of the foregoing, is the coal-titmouse, P. ater, distinguished by its black cap, white cheeks and white nape. Some interest attaches to this species because of the difference observable between the race inhabiting the scanty remnants of the ancient Scottish forests and that which occurs throughout the rest of Britain. The former is more brightly tinted than the latter, having a clear bluish-grey mantle and the lower part of the back greenish, hardly either of which colours are to be seen in the same parts of more southern examples, which last have been described as forming a distinct species, P. britannicus. But it is to be observed that the denizens of the old Scotch fir-woods are nearly midway in coloration between the dingy southern birds and those which prevail over the greater part of the continent of Europe. It would therefore seem unreasonable to speak of two species only: there should be either three or one, and the latter alternative is to be preferred, provided the existence of the local races be duly recognized. Much the same thing is to be noticed in the next species to be mentioned, the marsh titmouse, P. palustris, which, sombre as is its plumage, is subject to considerable local variation in its very extensive range, and has been called P. borealis in Scandinavia, P. alpestris in the Alps, and P. lugubris in south-eastern Europe, to say nothing of forms like P. baicalensis, P. camchatkensis and others, whose names denote its local variations in northern Asia, while no great violence is exercised if to these be tacked on P. atricapilla, with several geographical races which inhabit North America. A fifth British species is the rare crested titmouse, P. cristatus, only found in limited districts in Scotland, though common enough, especially in pine-woods, in many parts of Europe.
In addition to species of Parus, North America possesses two peculiar genera of tits—Psaltriparus and Auribarus. During the greater part of the year the various species of the genus Parus associate in family parties and only break up into pairs at the beginning of the breeding season. The nests are nearly always placed in a hollow stump, and consist of a mass of moss, feathers and hair, the last being worked almost into a kind of felt. Thereon the eggs, often to the number of eight or nine, are laid, and these have a translucent white shell, freckled or spotted with rust colour. The first plumage of the young closely resembles that of the parents; but, so far as is known, it has always a yellower tinge, very apparent on the parts, if there be such, which in the adult are white. Few birds are more restless in disposition. Most of the European species and some of the North American become familiar, haunting the neighbourhood of houses, especially in winter, and readily availing themselves of such scraps of food, about the nature of which they are not particular, as they can get. By gardeners every titmouse is generally regarded as an enemy, for it is supposed to do infinite damage to the buds of fruit-trees and bushes; but the accusation is wholly false, for the buds destroyed are always found to be those to which a grub—the bird's real object—has got access, so that there can be little doubt that the titmouse is a great benefactor to the horticulturist.
Akin to the genus Parus, but in many respects differing from it, is Acredula, containing that curious-looking bird the long-tailed or bottle titmouse, with many local races or species. The bird itself, having its tail longer than its body, is unlike any other found in the northern hemisphere, while its nest is a perfect marvel of construction, being in shape nearly oval, with a small hole in one side. The exterior is studded with pieces of lichen, worked into a firm texture of moss, wool and spiders' nests, and the inside is profusely lined with soft feathers—2359 having been, says Macgillvray, counted in one example. Not inferior in beauty or ingenuity is the nest built by the penduline titmouse, Aegilhalus pendulinus, of the south of Europe, which differs, however, not merely in composition, but in being suspended to a bough, while the former is nearly always placed between two or more branches.
The so-called bearded titmouse, Panurus biarmicus, has habits wholly unlike those of any of the foregoing, and is now placed in a separate Passerine family—Panuridae. It was formerly found in many parts of England, especially in the eastern counties, where it bore the name of reed-pheasant; but through the draining of meres, the destruction of reed-beds, and the rapacity of collectors it now exists in few localities. It is a beautiful little bird, of a bright tawny colour, variegated with black and white, while the cock is further distinguished by a bluish grey head and a black tuft of feathers on each side of the chin. Its chief food seems to be reed seeds and the smaller kinds of fresh-water molluscs, which it finds among the reed-beds it seldom quits.
- The prefix “tit” by heedless writers often used alone, though equally proper to the titlark (see Pipit), is perhaps cognate with the Greek τιτίς, which originally meant a small chirping bird (Ann. Nat. Hist., 4th series, vol. x. p. 227), and has a diminutive form in the Icelandic Titlingur—the English or at least Scottish titling. It is by false analogy that the plural of titmouse is made titmice; it should be titmouses. A nickname is very often added, as with many other familiar English birds, and in this case it is “tom.”
- The signification of this name is obscure. It may perhaps be correlated with a Swedish name for the bird—Talgoxe.
- Persons fond of watching the habits of birds may with little trouble provide a pleasing spectacle by adopting the plan, practised by the late A. E. Knox, of hanging a lump of suet or tallow by a short string to the end of a flexible rod stuck aslant into the ground close to the window of a sitting-room. It is seldom long before a titmouse of some kind finds the dainty, and once found visits are made to it until every morsel is picked off. The attitudes of the birds as they cling to the swinging lure are very diverting, and none but a titmouse can succeed in keeping a foothold upon it.
- The common names given to this bird are so very inapplicable that it is a pity that “silerella” (from siler, an osier) bestowed upon it by Sir T. Browne, its original discoverer, cannot be restored.