Illustration by John P. O'Neill
This acrobatic species is most often encountered as a small- to medium-size flock moves through woodland. Its presence is usually announced by the almost constant calling between members of the groups as they move from tree to tree. Nest is an intricately woven hanging structure. Polytypic (10 ssp.; 5 in North America). Length 4.5" (11 cm).
Identification Very small body size and long tail distinguish this species from other chickadee-like birds. Adult: pale gray overall, darker on upperparts, with very small bill. Interior birds have brown ear patch with a gray crown; coastal birds have a brown cap. Adult females have pale eyes. Juvenile: similar to adult except in Southwest, where juvenile males can show a black ear patch. Juvenile females develop pale eyes a few weeks after fledging.
Geographic Variation Subspecies in North America usually divided into 2 groups: brown-capped (minimus) of the Pacific coast and gray-capped (plumbeus) of the inter-mountain West. “Black-eared” bushtit, from southeastern Arizona eastward through central Texas, was once considered a separate species but is a polymorphic variation mainly seen in juvenile males. There is evidence of an intergradation zone between gray-capped birds and the black-eared birds (melanotis) that occur through the remainder of the species range.
Similar Species Immature verdin more uniform in overall body plumage and has a shorter tail. Gnatcatchers have longer, black tails, prominent eye ring.
Voice Sharp twittering tsip or tseet.
Status and Distribution Common. Year-round: resident in a variety of woodland, scrub, and residential habitats; south to Guatemala. Dispersal: some movement to lower elevation in northern part of range. Vagrant: very rare to western Plains.
Population Populations appear to be stable in most of the United States.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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