Bushtits – Getting Ready to Nest in New Mexico

“It looks like a Bushtit pair are re-using last year’s nest,” a bird monitor colleague commented as we approached the Visitor Center at the Rio Grande Nature Center recently.

The pendulous nest of a mass of woven dried grass hung among some dead leaves.


Sure enough, a pair of Bushtits started bringing some additional nesting material to reinforce the nest. The male of the pair seemed concerned about my interest in the nest,


male Bushtit

so I backed away.

This is what the nest looked like last May.


I was surprised to see it reusing the nest as I had not heard of that before. When I got home, I checked the research on Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North American Online, and discovered that Bushtits almost never reuse a nest in a subsequent year.

They must have been taking grasses from last year’s nest to build a new one. A week later, the old nest seemed less dense and there was no sign of activity.

Like this one, most nests are built in a tangle of branches to better protect the parents and young from predators. The nesting material is held together by spider webs.

I like to describe the nest as looking like a deteriorating ‘old sock’ hanging in a bush or tree.

They begin nest-building begins earlier than other song birds, often in March – and both male and female share equally in this process. If you see more than two birds hovering about the nest, it means they probably have ‘helpers’, usually adult males. Once the eggs have been laid, one adult will sleep on the eggs, but at night the couple, and helpers if there are any, all sleep inside the long nest. Once the young birds fledge, they no longer use the nest for sleeping.

These busy, diminutive birds are the only member of the long-tailed tit family found in North America. The only way to differentiate the males from the females is their eye color.

The eyes of the male are dark (see above); whereas the female has a light-colored, almost clear, eye.


female Bushtit

Bushtits, found year-round in most of New Mexico, and with the exception of the nesting cycle always travel with 10 – 20 fellow bushtits. These flocks remain fairly stable over the non-breeding period, and individuals will associate with the same flock from year to year. They may range over a fairly large territory during a given day – which often makes it difficult during a bird census to know whether they have already been counted!

During the winter, they often visit my yard several times a day, clustering on the suet feeder,


or drinking from the bubbler in my tiny pond.


Occasionally, during the winter I will discover one picking dead spiders out of old cobwebs attached to a windows.


At other times of the year, I can hear their high-pitched contact calls as they move through the landscape gleaning tiny insects and spiders from both evergreen and deciduous trees. They keep busy from dawn to dusk and are often the first birds I see in the morning – even during the winter.

“Watch as they begin to leave the tree,” an experienced birder pointed out to me when I was a novice. “When they are ready to move on to another tree, they will exit one bird at a time. “

It’s time to pay attention to these fascinating birds as they begin to build their nests – but be sure to stay a safe distance away so they won’t abandon the nest and start over at a new location.










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