Tit (bird)

The tits, chickadees, and titmice comprise Paridae, a large family of small passerine birds which occur in the northern hemisphere and Africa. Most were formerly classified in the genus Parus.

These birds are called "chickadees" (onomatopoeic, derived from their distinctive "chick-a dee dee dee" communication or alarm call) or "titmice" in North America, and just "tits" in the rest of the English speaking world. The name titmouse is attested from the 14th century, composed of the Old English name for the bird, mase (Proto-Germanic *maison, German Meise) and tit, denoting something small. The spelling was influenced by mouse in the 16th century.

These birds are mainly small stocky woodland species with short stout bills. Some have crests. They range in length from 10 to 22 centimetres. They are adaptable birds, with a mixed diet including seeds and insects. Many species will live around human habitation and come readily to bird feeders for nuts or seed, and learn to take other foods. In Britain, Great Tits and Blue Tits famously learned to break open the foil caps sealing bottles of milk that had been delivered to homes to get at the cream floating on top.

These are hole-nesting birds, typically using trees, although some species build nests on the ground. They lay anything from three to nineteen speckled white eggs, depending on species.


The tits are active, noisy and social birds. They are territorial during the breeding season and often joining mixed-species feeding flocks during the non-breeding season. The tits are highly adaptable and, after the corvids (crows and jays) and parrots, amongst the most intelligent of all birds.

Diet and feeding

The tits are generalist insectivores that consume a wide range of small insects and other invertebrates, particularly small defoliating caterpillars. They also consume seeds and nuts, particularly in the winter. One characteristic method of foraging in the family is hanging, where they will inspect a branch or twig and leaves from all angles while hanging upside down to feed. In areas where numerous species of tit or titmouse coexist different species will forage in different parts of the tree, their niche determined in no small way by their morphology; larger species forage on the ground, medium sized species foraging on larger branches and the smallest species on the ends of branches. Having obtained larger prey items or seeds tits will engage in hold-hammering, where they will hold the item with one foot and hammer it with the bill until it is open. In this fashion they can even open hazelnuts in around 20 minutes. A number of genera engage in food caching, hoarding supplies of food during the winter. These caches are usually of seeds but may be of insects.


More recently, the large Parus group has been gradually split into several genera (as indicated below), which has been pioneered by North American ornithological authorities and to a more limited degree (as of now) elsewhere. Whereas in the mid-1990s, only Pseudopodoces, Baeolophus, Melanochlora and Sylviparus were considered well-supported by the available data as distinct from Parus (Harrap & Quinn 1996). Today, this arrangement is considered paraphyletic as indicated by mtDNA cytochrome b sequence analysis and Parus is best restricted to the Parus major - Parus fasciiventer clade, and even the latter species' closest relatives might be considered a distinct genus (Gill et al. 2005).

In the Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy, the Paridae family is much enlarged to include related groups such as the Penduline tits and Long-tailed tits, but while the former are quite close to the titmice indeed and could conceivably included in that family together with the stenostirid "warblers", the long-tailed tits are not. Indeed, the Yellow-browed Tit and the Sultan Tit are possibly more distant to the titmice than are the penduline tits (Gill et al. 2005 and Jønsson & Fjeldsa 2006). If the two current families are lumped into the Paridae, the titmice would be a subfamily Parinae.

Alternatively, all tits - save the 2 monotypic genera discussed in the preceding section and possibly Cyanistes, but including Hume's Ground Tit - could be lumped in Parus. In any case, 4 major clades of "typical" tits can be recognized: the dark-capped chickadees and their relatives (Poecile including Sittiparus), the long-crested Baeolophus and Lophophanes species, the usually tufted, white-cheeked Periparus (including Pardaliparus) with more subdued coloration and finally Parus sensu stricto (including Melaniparus and Macholophus). Still, the interrelationship of these as well as the relationships of many species within the clades are not well resolved at all; analysis of morphology and biogeography probably gives more a robust picture than the available molecular data (Gill et al., 2005).

Titmice have settled North America twice, probably at some time during the Early-Mid Pliocene. The first were the ancestors of Baeolophus; chickadees arrived somewhat later (Gill et al., 2005).

Species in taxonomic order

might be included here

These two monotypic genera are possibly less close to titmice than are the penduline tits.


  • Del Hoyo, J.; Elliot, A. & Christie D. (editors). (2006). Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 12: Picathartes to Tits and Chickadees. Lynx Edicions. ISBN 9788496553422
  • Gill, Frank B.; Slikas, Beth & Sheldon, Frederick H. (2005): Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): II. Species relationships based on sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome-b gene. Auk 122: 121-143. DOI: 10.1642/0004-8038(2005)122[0121:POTPIS]2.0.CO;2 HTML abstract
  • Harrap, Simon & Quinn, David (1996): Tits, Nuthatches & Treecreepers. Christopher Helm, London. ISBN 0-7136-3964-4
  • Jønsson, Knud A. & Fjeldså, Jon (2006): Determining biogeographical patterns of dispersal and diversification in oscine passerine birds in Australia, Southeast Asia and Africa. J. Biogeogr. 33(7): 1155–1165. (HTML abstract)
  • Slikas, Beth; Sheldon, Frederick H.; Gill, Frank B. (1996): Phylogeny of titmice (Paridae): I. Estimate of relationships among subgenera based on DNA-DNA hybridization. Journal of Avian Biology 27: 70-82.

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