Dear Bird Folks,
This question has been bothering me for quite a while and now I finally have a chance to ask it. When I have more than one Tufted Titmouse on my feeder, do I have titmice or titmouses? I need to know.
– Susan, Brewster, MA
It must be November, Susan,
The questions we receive in July and August have a sense of urgency to them. In mid-summer folks are busy with gardens, beaches and mooching relatives. The only questions they have time to ask are simple and straightforward. “Why am I seeing bald cardinals?” (They are molting.) “How do I make hummingbird food?” (Four parts water to one part sugar.) “Will a hawk eat my dachshund?” (Only if you spill mustard on it.) But when the off-season rolls around and people spend more time in their houses (is the plural for houses, “hice”?) the questions change. They become a lot more intellectual, more philosophical and sometimes just plain weird. (Your question is definitely one of those three.)
Strange as it may seem, there’s actually an answer to your question. It can be found in a little book entitled: 100 Birds and How They Got Their Names. It’s a pretty good book, but not very popular. It’s typically only bought by hardcore birders, book collectors and bored Cape Codders in the fall. According to the author, the name “titmouse” comes from the Old Icelandic word titr, meaning “small” and the Anglo-Saxon mase, meaning “small bird.” Somewhere along the way, titr mase became titmouse. I know it’s a bit confusing, but the important thing to keep in mind is that the mouse part of titmouse has nothing to do with rodents. The bird is not related to Mickey, Mighty, or Stewart Little. Thus, if I’ve interpreted the book correctly, using titmice for the plural of titmouse is not proper. It should be titmouses, much the same way the plural of houses isn’t, as it turns out, “hice.” But, saying titmice isn’t totally wrong either. Let’s continue.
I don’t know how old you are, Susan, but back in the middle of the last century there was a rock and roll band known as The Beatles. The Beatles were the Steve Jobs of their time. Everything they did was exciting, different and groundbreaking. Even their album covers were works of art. In 1968, they produced an album simply entitled The Beatles. The album cover had no pictures or illustrations on it. It was totally white, with the words “The Beatles” embossed in small letters. The proper name of this album was, and still is, The Beatles. However, nobody calls it that. The public decided years ago that this particular record should be called “The White Album” because of the stark white cover. This name has become so universally accepted that even the surviving members of the band refer to it as The White Album. The point of all this is that while saying titmice might not be perfectly correct, but like The White Album, it is most certainly acceptable, and perhaps even preferred. That’s all I’m going to say on this topic. I have to get back to talking about birds before I end up getting a forty-page letter from some language professor at Oxford, who feels the need to instruct me in the proper interpretation of Old Icelandic. (Like there’s something I don’t already know about Old Icelandic.)
Tufted Titmice (see, I say it too) are one of the least talked about backyard birds, but I like them. I especially like their eyes. Titmice have big dark eyes, which always give them a startled expression, looking like a kid who was caught not paying attention in class. Their eyes appear to be extra large because they have a thin ring of black feathers around them. (It’s the avian version of mascara.) Tufted Titmice have one other noticeable feature, their tufts. Their signature tufts make the birds look like they are wearing tiny dunce caps (probably for not paying attention in class). These tufts aren’t just decorations (or a form of punishment) they are used to communicate. When a dominant bird arrives at a feeder it will have its crest fluffed-up high. That’s a signal for the other birds to back off. When the younger, subordinate titmice see Mr. Big Crest coming, they lower their crests and get out of the way, mumbling a few things under their breath as they go.
In addition to using its tuft for communication, a titmouse will also use its voice, which is extremely loud for such a small bird. Starting in late winter the male gives his signature “peter, peter, peter” song to announces his territory. Many humans, particularly men for some reason, like to whistle back at singing birds. They think the birds are actually “answering” them, which is pretty silly. The birds are going to keep singing either way. However, titmice are the exception. The next time you hear a titmouse whistling “peter, peter, peter,” try whistling back. Quite often a male titmouse will land on the branch above you and continue singing. He’ll no doubt have his crest raised and will stare at you with his big black eyes. Just don’t mention anything about him wearing mascara. He’s sensitive about that.
Don’t worry about saying titmice, Susan. The public has long decided that it’s acceptable. You can use it without fear of anyone correcting you. Well, anyone except perhaps one those Oxford language professors. Nobody is safe from that group.