The under-appreciated variation of Tufted Titmouse songs

If you arrived here from the “Mystery sound” post, the answer is…Tufted Titmouse

In the 1990s, on a visit to Concord, Massachusetts, I was struck by how different the Tufted Titmice sounded from the ones I was used to in New Jersey. They were capable of singing the typical “peter-peter-peter” song, but many of them sang a series of odd single-syllabed phrases, or choppy multi-syllabled phrases, and other variations that were only vaguely titmouse-like. Also, a lot of these abnormal phrases were shared by multiple birds in the neighborhood.

My recording from Concord (linked here) is one very distinctive variation, but there are many others.

After I moved to Concord I always meant to look into Titmouse song variation more deeply, and this spring (2012) I finally paid enough attention to notice that these variant songs are used through the middle the day, while during the dawn chorus the same individual birds use typical and very uniform “peter” songs.

This suggests that the two song types serve different functions. Of course, when I searched the literature I found that Schroeder and Wiley (1983) had documented all of this already. They classified Titmouse songs into three categories, or themes, and found that theme 1 was the dominant sound for the first hour of the day (the typical “peter” songs). Theme 3 is the most unlike typical songs, and is heard more in the mid-morning, just what I had observed. They found that it is used mainly in interactions between males, and that males often match songs and counter-sing back and forth using theme 3 songs.

There must be a lot of information communicated to other titmice by these different songs and the ways they are used, and the song-sharing and counter-singing by males is a recipe for geographic variation. I suspected regional dialects the first time I heard the odd song in Concord, but the species has only been resident in Massachusetts for about 70 years. Nevertheless, below are a series of recordings suggesting that these “theme 3” songs show significant regional variations.

I’m interested to hear from others. Do you hear songs like the Massachusetts recordings in your region? What, if any, variants are heard there?

Recordings

First, an absolutely typical song from Arkansas

A variation of the “peter” song from Tennessee

and another

and a higher-pitched song from Louisiana

Here is a song nearly identical to the one I recorded in Concord, but a much cleaner recording, from Hampshire, MA, about 70 miles west of Concord

An odd song from Michigan, presumably one of the local variants, although the recordist commented on the unusual sound, and I never hear anything like this in Massachusetts.

From Arkansas, another odd song, presumably one of the local variations there. In this case the recordist commented on the low pitch,but says this song variant was “common in the area”. Again, I never hear anything like this in Massachusetts.

From Wisconsin, one odd song

and another

References

Schroeder, D. J. and R. H. Wiley. 1983. Communication with Shared Song Themes in Tufted Titmice Parus bicolor Auk 100:414-424. http://sora.unm.edu/sites/default/files/journals/auk/v100n02/p0414-p0424.pdf

71 thoughts on “The under-appreciated variation of Tufted Titmouse songs”

  1. I once heard a tufted titmouse doing the song of a whippoorwill at the house next to the parking lot of Ward Reservation in Andover. My girlfriend and I at the time thought it was a whip…..then saw the culprit sitting in a bush next to the house!

    1. I know you’re out of the country now, but when you have a moment will you please listen to this one and tell me what you think? I loved this when I recorded it in 2018, and still hear it (and still love it) this year. Thanks!

  2. I’ve been hearing this ever coming to MA (also from NJ), and I had to track it down the first time I did to be sure it was actually a TUTI. In fact, someone asked me about this just last month, and they didn’t believe me when I said it was a titmouse! I tried to find an online recording of this song variant, but couldn’t find one anywhere.

  3. Nicholas Acheson

    I heard a bird that I could not find to identify visually. It was in wooded area surrounded by agricultural fields, and in a private grounds with No Trespassing signs. This is a region where Tufted Titmice have been breeding, but only relatively recently (they seem to be progressing north), just north of the Vermont border about 8 km east of Mississquoi Bay (northern part of Lake Champlain). I have a very poor recording (film) of the bird whistling “in the wind”, as there was lots of wind. It sounds like none of the above birds but it has the timbre of a Tufted Titmouse. It cosists of single whistles every 3-5 sec or so, followed occasionally by four rapid “tur tur tur tur” notes that descend the scale abruptly. Am I completely wrong, is it some other species, or is it a TUTI with its own local “Quebecois” accent? See YouTube URL http://youtu.be/BJK0O6lyNR4

    1. Nicholas Acheson

      I now think this was probably a Baltimore Oriole, because I have heard some recordings on Xeno Canto that sound very much like this. Sorry to bring this up in the wrong context!

      1. I agree, this sounds like a Baltimore Oriole. The irregular rhythm is a distinctive feature – while Tufted Titmouse usually sings a more steady “peter peter peter” with equal emphasis on all syllables, the orioles sing something more like “WEEEta WEEEta WEEEta” and usually a few other different phrases also, with obvious differences in length and strength of the syllables. It’s subtle, but I think that’s part of the “oriole-like” quality of this sound.

  4. At Corkscrew Swamp last February I heard what I decided had to be a Tufted Titmouse singing a rapid series of notes 2-3 seconds long, verging on a trill. Someone asked me what it was, saying it sounded like a cell phone ringing. When I said it was probably a Tufted Titmouse, a lady who had overheard us said rather indignantly that she had never heard a Tufted Titmouse sing like that, and she had plenty of them up north. On that visit, there were lots of Titmouse around and they often sang (and counter-sang) their more usual quick series of notes, with all the same qualities as this more unusual song (except the speed of course).

  5. Ernie… I’m not a confident birder, and for a long while I had no idea what the bird in my recording was, so I have some sympathy for your Indignant Lady. Not until I actually saw the bird while he was calling was I convinced that it was indeed the Tufted Titmouse . Incidentally, I clicked your posting, and discovered your fine webpage and recordings.

  6. John Topolski

    Excellent post. My NE Ohio titmouse song is very similar to the last one from Wisconsin. I can email the mpg. Thanx

  7. I’m a particular lover of tufted titmice. I have noticed what I assume is a lone male this year. He’s been around since spring. It was this guy that made me look into song variations. He’s doing some that aren’t posted here.

    He sang his heart out all spring. I’m wondering if mating, and maybe difficulty in finding a mate, that might contribute to these variations.

    1. Hi Cori, If you’re hearing different variations that apparently means he’s communicating with other males. The standard two-syllabled whistled song is used for long-distance advertising to females and to other males. These other variations are used during encounters with rival males, and according to research some variations indicate an escalation, and some a retreat. There are lots of regional and individual variations, so I’m not surprised that you’re hearing something different from the few examples linked in this post. The bottom line is that your male is probably paired with a female, he just has a lot to say to the neighbors.

  8. I’m from southern Indiana. In one the variations I hear, it sounds to me like they are saying sugar feet in a short-short-long rhythm.

  9. On a snowy January 18th morning, I just heard my first “peter-peter-peter-peter” call of a Tufted Titmouse. Yesterday I heard my first “fee-bee” call of a chickadee. Like chickadees does the Tufted Titmouse begin to sing around mid-january?
    I assume these are males and possibly this is the first hint of claiming territory, a mid winter hint of the coming spring and the approaching breeding season.

  10. in the back ground of XC29512, what is the 2-note call heard softly at :01? I hear this in Indiana especially in winter. I think it might be a titmouse, but I can’t ever locate the source.

  11. Your first recording from Wisconsin is very similar to what I hear from them in northwestern Pennsylvania.

  12. I heard the “odd song from Michigan” in my Maryland woods this morning.
    I had never heard the song before but suspected a titmouse so I began
    looking online for recordings and found this site. It is a perfect match.
    I only heard the call a few times, but will be listening for more.

  13. I came here because I just now heard a new 3-note titmouse song. Well, new to me, and it doesn’t sound anything like the recordings above. First I heard some unfamiliar squawking but could only see titmice when I went to the window. Then a few minutes later I heard a slow, three note song. I went to the window and clearly observed a titmouse singing it. Very deliberate, very musical. I didn’t get a recording, but it was three identical length notes evenly spaced over about 1.5 seconds. If you have a piano or guitar handy, it was E, C#, D. Very pretty. I hope he becomes a regular at my feeder. Oh, it was just after 9AM in SW PA if you’re curious.

    1. Virginia Rickeman

      I am so glad I found this website!

      The Titmice (what IS the plural?) here in Boothbay, Maine, don’t sound like any of these recordings.
      The peter-peter-peter song sounds more like the cardinal’s cheer-cheer-cheer.

      Beginning in February this year I heard what sounded very much like an Olive-sided Flycatcher. Impossible! When I finally saw the bird singing it was a Tufted Titmouse. More like “ov-er-here” than “quick-three- beers” but the same sequence of notes. (E-F-D)

      The “over-here” song is much less frequent now. It’s “cheer-cheer-cheer” all day long.

    2. Yes, mine do the 3 note songs! They do the other calls as well but the 3 note one is very interesting

  14. The Titmice I hear around Richmond Va sound just like the 1st recording. How can that be?
    I don’t think I’ve heard any of the other ones around me.

  15. I’ve been trying to identify a bird from northern Ohio that sings a clear 3 note song that is a (D B E) on a music scale. I have recorded its song and was advised by 2 different birding organizations that it is a “wierd” Tufted Titmouse.

    1. I would be interested to hear the recording, and happy to offer an opinion. If the file isn’t to large you can attach it to a message using the “contact” link above.

      Best,
      David

  16. We’ve had a Tufted Titmouse hanging out all winter (Southeast WI). Early this spring, it started singing a song I can’t seem to find anywhere. A 3 (occasionally 2 or 4) note song, about 1/2 second between each note, each with the exact same rising tone: “Twee, Twee, Twee”. I have reasonably good audio recordings of it while visually observing.

    1. Wendy Thompson

      I have been hearing a loud “TWEET TWEET” or more like “TWeET TWeET” in my yard for the past three springs and summers. At one time I was satisfied it was the Tufted Titmouse but then everything I looked at said that the TT says “Peter Peter Peter.” There had to be three whistles. I asked a local bird expert, the so-called Bird Diva, and she thought a two tweet call would be unusual. But today I finally good look at the two-tweet bird and it is definitely a Titmouse. I’m wondering if it’s one particular one in my yard who always does the two tweets, never a three.
      I’m in SE Vermont.

      1. Hi Wendy, A two-phrase call is not unusual for Tufted Titmouse, and is used specifically with some variants, and some individual birds, while other song variants are usually repeated 3 or more times. The “Peter-peter-peter” song is the one described in all the books, but each male has a repertoire of multiple other songs, and those are heard more often through the middle of the day. I’m listening to one in my yard (eastern Massachusetts) as I write this who is singing “heeew-hWEE, heeew-hWEE” (two phrases) over and over, and then the same individual switched to a higher-pitched “hwee-hwee-hwee-hwee” (four phrases).

      1. I think that is a Tufted Titmouse. They usually repeat the same notes a few times, but sometimes they add a little more variety as in your recording, with the second phrase lower-pitched and longer and not just a copy of the first. Also, their typical songs are clear whistles, but the alternate songs are sometimes buzzy whistles. So – it combines a couple of big deviations from the norm, but still a Tufted Titmouse.

  17. This month (May), I heard them singing the 3 note (D B E) song. I played a typical Peter Peter Peter song with my Ipad and one of the tutis came over to hear it. I actually saw him as he sang the 3 note song. But the only recording I have is an IPhone video and it won’t send to your contact site.

      1. It is NOT a tufted titmouse because it is like SEE you SEE you . I hope you understand! It is not fast like Peter Peter, it is much lower than the tufted titmouse’s ter

  18. I was at Three Lakes WMA in central Florida this past weekend and heard a very distinctive high-pitched “fee-bee-bay-bay-bay-bay” of a Carolina Chickadee’s song. This would be south of their usually mapped range, but sightings are not unheard of (just very unusual). I never got a glimpse of the bird, but most of the birders I’ve tried to describe the song to insist it had to be a Tufted Titmouse. I’ve listened to all the above recordings, plus many others around the ‘Net. I’ve listened to a bunch of chickadee songs, too. None of the titmouse songs sound anything like what I heard, but does anyone reading these comments have experience with a confirmed Tufted Titmouse singing a song virtually indistinguishable from a Carolina Chickadee? I am not referring to the “chick-a-deedeedeedee” calls but the clear, high, whistled song.

    I may be starting to obsess over this one unseen bird, but I’d just like to know, even if I don’t tick a mark on a list for the bird.

    Thanks,
    Christopher

    1. Hi Christopher, I’ve never heard a Tufted Titmouse do anything like that, only lower-pitched whistles, and it seems unlikely for one to make such a dramatic change in pitch. It’s right to be cautious about identifying birds by sound alone, so if Carolina Chickadee is rare there I would pencil it in as a possibility and try to go back and confirm it.

      Good luck, David

  19. Brian Hawthorne

    I moved from Concord, Mass. out to Plainfield, Mass. years ago. Ever since, I have been hearing birds out here (one is singing as I type this, which is how I ended up on this page) who say “peer peer peer peer,” with just single falling syllables, no “peter” or “peeyer”. I have never been able to match the song with a visual, and my local birding experts in Windsor and Dalton haven’t been able to help (well, I never brought them recordings…). Now that I know there is such variation in tufted titmice songs, I bet that’s what I’m hearing, as we have them all over the place.

  20. I’m in northeastern Michigan, and had a bird singing a clear two-note song this morning. Spotted a tufted titmouse in the direction of the sound, but didn’t realize it was my “singer” until I heard the Michigan variation of the call above! It was a much slower peter call, repeated every 15 seconds or so. Not at all what I’m used to hearing. Must be a Michigan accent!

  21. The mystery call that I have been hearing early Feb into fall in eastern Ohio…..sounds similar…..but my bird is doing a wick wick wicka…….. way high up in the trees and appears to be grey…..but I can never make a positive id….

  22. Milt Weinstein

    We have a bird in central NH that sings the last song on the list. We have lots of tufted titmice in our area, but this song cropped up last summer and we had no idea what it was. Until an ornithologist friend pointed me to this web site. Musically, it’s an inversion of the standard “peter peter peter” song, with an upward slur instead of downward . Fascinating!

    1. Hi Jay, I think Tufted Titmouse is a good guess. The pitch and general tone of the sound fits, and I have heard one or two over the years giving odd non-repetitive songs like this. The surest answer will be to see the bird, and hopefully it will stick around so you can track it down.

  23. Anyone know of a bird that sounds like it is telling a story? It doesn’t have 1 (or even 2) distinct sounds but sounded like 4 or 5 different phrases that repeat in the same order. My mom heard it last night, saw the bird that went with it but has no clue what it could be. She said it had a long, straight (toothpick-like) beak with a tail that looks longer than most bird-to-body length.

    1. My first guess would be Northern Mockingbird, as a long-tailed bird that is often heard at night and has a varied voice (and is very noticeable). I’ve never thought of it as “telling a story” but that’s a nice way to describe it. Another possibility is American Robin, which often repeats its phrases in the same order. –David

  24. Dr. Julie Ashley (DVM)

    Hmmm. Well, although there is variation in all the songs posted here, not a single one even begins to sound like the very complex songs (plural) of a fledgling Tufted titmouse that I’m rehabbing. All the songs posted here are simple, repetitive and somewhat bland…compared to the bird I hear sing every day, all day long. My little bird’s songs are long, musical and very melodic with differing crescendos and decresendos. S/he also has several different calls, some alarm, ranging from a high-pithched cheeter, something like a near scream, the typical nasal, mechanical alarm, a soft but very high-pitched sound that’s different from the other high-pitched. All I can say is this little titmouse I’m helping is indeed one very “happy” bird, there is no other way to explain the extensive and complex repertoire s/he has. It’s almost obvious that s/he is happy, it’s palpable. Watching him/her sing, whether fluffed, content, full belly, resting on a branch or flitting about only confirms it. When s/he is not singing, s/he is ‘talking’….and that involves whole different set of sounds. Honestly, I am absolutely stunned, awed and blown away beyond words at how unbelievably communicative this little bird is, I have never EVER encountered anything like it in all the years I’ve worked with birds and animals….not ever!

    S/he is also unusually curious and extremely playful for a songbird….e.g. s/he gathers objects and stashes them in little nooks, also stashes food, carries objects around (some large but light, like goose feathers or large leaves), mouths or chews on them, twirls on branches either 180 degrees to a full 360 degrees from rightside up to upside down and back up again, bangs on things with his/her beak, jumps to catch flying bugs, etc. etc. It just goes on and on.

  25. Dr. Ashley, please share a recording of that special fledgling if you have it. I, and I’m sure others, would love to hear it.

    Nice article. Good to see the range among TUTI songs acknowledged, although, even with all variability, I’ve always found their vocalizations invariably dull and dreary. At least they’re cute little guys and gals.

  26. Pingback: Titmouse Crossing – BirdNation

  27. The very last recording above is the one that I hear most (N.E. Mass). I also hear a Titmouse sound commonly which isn’t represented in the above; it’s like the last one, but curves up instead of down.
    I’m so happy to find this web page, because I keep questioning my sanity when I hear these birds and think “wait, I thought I knew the Titmouse sound, but this is different”!

  28. I’m in the Tampa, FL area and recently moved to a home with a wooded area adjacent to the backyard. Every morning I hear a song very similar to the last Wisconsin recording – just a slow 5-count trill that starts at a low pitch and ends a little higher. I can’t seem to catch a glimpse of the little bugger, but then yesterday it followed up the trill with the typical “peter, peter, peter” call, so it makes me think it’s a Titmouse. Does this sound right?

    1. Hi Jeff, That sounds very plausible. I would guess titmouse, but I hope you can eventually get visual confirmation – that’s always more satisfying.

      1. LOL! Confirmed. I rigged up my bluetooth speaker to the iPad, put it on the sill of the screened pool enclosure and played several of the recordings above. Within 20 minutes I had two flying around the speaker, looking for their new “friend.” This is too funny!

    1. Hi Mike, I agree that sounds like a titmouse – the low-pitched whistle in a series sounds just right, and they often give an “irregular” series like this, with notes differing in pitch or inflection. It’s interesting that the local birders “have never heard anything quite like it”. I wonder if it’s a new song version that this individual just came up with locally, or an immigrant from some distant place bringing a different “accent” to the area.

  29. I recently heard a bird call that I wanted to try and identify but didnt have the faintest idea what it could be. I now believe from hearing the Tufted Titmice variants on this site that it is indeed a Tufted Titmouse! I am so glad to have figured it out because I had this daily reminder when I would hear it that I could not ID the bird, which was quite frustrating!
    The song in question actually sounds almost exactly like the odd song variant recorded in Michigan. I, however, observed mine just east of Rochester NY.

  30. I think generally they sing a sweet whistled song. I have heard many variations in their songs but they always seem to have that sweetness to it. The one, almost warbled song, from Mass. is probably an exception though.

    1. Michael Cramblet

      We hear this exact same song in West Michigan and have been trying to figure out which bird it is. We were thinking it was a variation of the Tufted Titmouse, but didn’t know for sure.

      1. Wow, that’s the same one we hear here in NW Arkansas. Has been driving me crazy as all I see are Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Cardinals and Goldfinches. Maybe the mystery has been solved!

  31. Kaitlyn Salamone

    I live in Missouri, and we get those two Wisconsin songs pretty often. Another song that I’ve been trying to identify for months turned out this morning (around 7:30) to be a tufted titmouse. I tracked him down and watched him sing it repeatedly. Of course, as soon as I started recording he stopped. But it sounded like, “So here I am”, with the first note high, the second note low, and the last two rising.

  32. I live in Concord across from Sleepy Hollow Cemetary, which is a big hangout for these birds. I’ve noticed the tufteds here sing a variation of their “Peter peter” with the accent on the second syllable, almost like they are asking a question: “pe-TER?”. Usually when the weather gets warmer.

    Anyway, I picked up your field guide from the bookstore downtown. Great stuff!

  33. We call our Tufted Titmouse the Heebie-Jeebie bird in Arkansas. That is exactly what he says over and over.

  34. We regularly here both of the variations from Wisconsin here in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The Tennessee, first Arkansas, and Louisiana ones all sound similar to what we have around here as well.

  35. We definitely have Tufted Titmouse (titmice?) here – have seen and heard them. Lots of Peter, Peter, Peter, Pee-yer, Pee-yer, Pee-yer, and more. (And we have Cardinals too, but I think some of the sounds are Cardinal imitations by a Titmouse, like XC33585 above.

    At dawn, I’m wondering if it is a Titmouse that is singing a loud clear, two notes. Both are approximately F sharp. Could easily be the ‘Pe’ of Peter, but no follow up… Similar to XC52353, but only two notes, and not that first lower note.

    For a few days in a row last summer (S. New Hampshire), there was a single bird singing three F sharps, followed by three D notes. The three D’s seemed ever so slightly slower, so it was just a little mournful… Possibly a Titmouse again?

    Finally (knowing that we have the Titmouses and Cardinals, I wonder which one (if either) would be repeating a phrase like “TEENager TEENager TEENager” (or “BEEF eater, BEEF eater, BEEF eater) over and over. Makes me think Cardinal, but it doesn’t carry on to any other Cardinal variations.

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