February 8, 2021
One of the year-round resident birds I hear often in the riparian areas along Outlet and Davis Creek is the perky Oak Titmouse, Baeolophus inornatus. This little soft grey-brown overall bird has a stubby bill, a round black eye that stands out, and a short crest. Its belly is a lighter color grey than the back. Their species name “inornatus” means plain or unadorned, but I think that this is a pretty bird. It just does not have any striking colors or patterns on it, the pointy crest being the outstanding characteristic that tells it apart from the similar grey-brown bushtit.
Today as I am surveying Mill Creek for birds, I notice an Oak titmouse following along the trail I am following. It is calling noisily right at me. There are some large valley oaks out on the valley floor, but this bird is in the willows, ash, and alders that line the creek.
The Oak titmouse is so called because it is a year-round resident of the oak woodlands. Therefore, this bird was referred to as, “the voice and soul of the Oak woodlands” by David Schuford in the Marin County Breeding Bird Atlas. Being a species that is almost only endemic to, or only found in California oak woodlands with a few in Southern Oregon and Baja California, this is a well-loved and known bird. Its personality is one of jauntiness, perky attentiveness, and boldness. It is a very busy little bird, constantly looking for food and keeping an eye open for predators, like Sharp-shinned hawks or annoying Scrub jays. The other reason why they are always so alert is that they are highly territorial, mate for life, and are homebodies rarely leaving their area. Their territories, which according to Kate Marionchild in Secrets of the Oak Woodlands, can be 6 acres and are protected from other titmice pairs and the closely related chickadees. Even us humans have been on the receiving end of a territorial Oak Titmouse’s wrath! I have been scolded many times by a pair of titmice that I deduce must be telling me I am in their zone, and I should leave. One of the theories as to why they are so drably colored is that they mate for life and do not flock up with other birds during migration, so males do not need to impress females with fancy dress. Their inconspicuous coloring and subtle beauty are perfectly suited for oak woodlands. This has been apparent to me when I hear their ‘peter,peter,peter’ call but cannot find the bird!
Since oaks have been declining all over California, Oak titmice have become a species of special concern and are on the National Audubon’s watchlist due to their close ties to oak woodland habitat. This is one my favorite birds and I cannot imagine a world without the Oak titmouse.
The character that is scolding me right now has bright black eyes focused on me, sitting still just enough that I can snap some quick photos capturing the attitude of this small brave bird. Where is its mate? How big is its territory? This may be the same one I have seen before here; does it remember me? My day is complete after this fun interaction.