Physical characteristics

Fast-moving, agile and small—this is the classic description of the titmice. With short wings and tail, and short legs with very strong feet, they are well-adapted to their arboreal life-style. There is little variation in size within the family and sexes of the same species are typically similar, although fe males can be slightly smaller. The smallest of the family is the yellow-browed tit (Sylviparus modestus), while the largest is the sultan tit (Melanochlora sultanea). Throughout the family, the bill is typically short and stout. This appearance is accentuated in some species that also have relatively large heads (e.g., the willow tit [Parus montanus]), which either specialize in feeding on hard seeds or excavate their own nest holes. Within a single species, the bill shape can vary according to the habitats in which individuals live and the types of seeds and nuts available to them. Bill and leg colors, and iris color in most species, are dark and drab, although two of the African species have distinctive pale yellow irises.

Generally, members of the different subgenera share plumage characteristics. The Poecile are typically dark-capped, brown-backed and cream-breasted with white cheeks and varying amounts of rufous on the flanks. The spot-winged tits have characteristic white tips on the wing coverts, which give the spot-winged appearance. The crested tits are represented by two species that both possess head-crests but vary in color patterns. The six species of African black tits are typically all black with striking white wing-coverts and white edges to the flight feathers. The rufous-bellied tits are three closely related species all characterized by having rufous underparts and dark upperparts. The African gray tits are gray in overall coloration ranging from the paler Miombo tit, Parus griseiventris, to the duskier southern gray tit, Parus afer. Like the rufous-bellied tits, the gray tits have well-patterned wings formed from white edging to all of the wing feathers. The great tit, Parus major, and its allies are mostly brightly colored tits. All have black heads with white cheeks and a black vertical breast stripe, though back and breast coloration is highly variable, includ

Blue titmouse (Parus caeruleus) feeding young. (Photo by IFA Bilderteam. Bruce Coleman Inc. Reproduced by permission.)

ing species with gray, green, blue, black, or yellow colors. The three species making up the blue tit group are similar in general shape, but vary dramatically in color from the brightly colored blue tit, Parus caeruleus, to the very pale azure tit, Parus cyanus. The American tufted titmice are mostly drab birds: gray or brown with pale underparts and darker upperparts. The yellow-browed tit is a small, all-green bird with pale-yellowish underparts and a faint yellow eye-ring, lacking the high-contrast plumage features typical of nearly all other tits.

The majority of species, especially those with wide geographical distributions, have many subspecies described and these often differ in plumage coloration to some degree.

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