Crafty birds steal HAIR from unsuspecting predators: Scientists film tufted titmice plucking fur from cats, dogs and even HUMANS to pad out their nests

  • Tufted titmice have been filmed plucking fur from animals to pad out their nests
  • It rubbishes long-held thought material pillaged from shed hair or dead animals
  • Researchers named behaviour kleptotrichy, which is Greek for ‘theft’ and ‘hair’
  • They think having predator’s hair in nest may be a way for birds to deter attacks

As crafty birds go, it turns out the tufted titmouse might just be the pluckiest of the lot. 

That’s because scientists have filmed them daringly stealing hair from cats, dogs and even humans to pad out their nests.

It rubbishes the long-held thought that the birds only pillage fur from dead animals or opportunistically snag it when hair is shed. 

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Crafty: The tufted titmouse (pictured) has been filmed daringly plucking hair from cats, dogs and even humans to pad out its nest. It rubbishes the long-held thought that the birds only pillage fur from dead animals or opportunistically snag it when hair is shed

WHAT IS THE TUFTED TITMOUSE? 

The tufted titmouse is a little grey bird that is common in deciduous forests.

It has black eyes, a small, round bill, and brushy crest.

The birds have been filmed plucking hair from live animals including dogs, cats, foxes and porcupines. 

They also snatch fur from the environment when it is shed and take it from dead animals to build their nests.

Among the animal hairs found in their nests are raccoons, possums, mice, woodchucks, squirrels, rabbits, livestock, pets and even humans. 

The oldest known wild tufted titmouse was at least 13 years, 3 months old, having been banded in Virginia in 1962 and found in the same state in 1974. 

The cunning behaviour was spotted by chance when an ecologist was carrying out a bird count in Illinois. 

‘The titmouse I saw was plucking hair from a live animal,’ said Jeffrey Brawn of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

‘This was from a live raccoon with claws and teeth. And the raccoon didn’t seem to mind because it didn’t even wake up.’

Brawn was so intrigued that he went looking for an explanation.

He and several colleagues found that fur theft had been mentioned only sparsely in scientific literature, but YouTube videos uploaded by bird enthusiasts suggested that what he had seen was not isolated behaviour. 

In these clips, tufted titmice were seen plucking hair from pet cats and dogs, and even a porcupine.

The researchers have named the behaviour kleptotrichy, which is Greek for ‘theft’ and ‘hair’.   

However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that stealing is not the tufted titmouse’s main method of sourcing hair, with footage also showing the birds retrieving shed animal fur from the ground.

This begs the question of why steal the hair at all.

It may be because there are benefits to having fur from predators in a bird’s nest, Brawn believes, adding: ‘There’s a local species called the great crested flycatcher, which, like the titmouse, is a cavity nester, that actually puts shed snakeskins into its nest, possibly to deter predators.’

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Finches in Africa also exhibit a similar behaviour, using the faeces of a predator as a deterrent.

Some birds line their nests with plant materials that help repel parasites and prevent them from killing tiny hatchlings, which researchers think might be another reason why the tufted titmice use animal hair. 

However, it’s unclear whether mammal fur has similar properties.  

Brawn’s colleague Henry Pollock said: ‘Unexpected interactions such as these remind us that animals exhibit all types of interesting and often overlooked behaviours and highlight the importance of careful natural history observations to shed light on the intricacies of ecological communities.’

The research has been published in the journal Ecology.

RSPB RECOMMENDS NOT HELPING FLEDGLING CHICKS ‘UNLESS THEY ARE IN IMMEDIATE DANGER’

Although the RSPB recommends not interfering with fledglings, the charity said there are circumstances when Britons should come to the birds aid.

Immediate danger

If the baby bird is on a busy road or path, the RSPB advises picking the bird up and moving it a short distance to a safe place such as a dense shrubbery.

This must be within hearing distance of where it was found. UK birds have a poor sense of smell and won’t abandon their young if they are touched.

If a cat or dog is spotted eyeing up a fledgling, then you are advised to keep your domestic pet indoors for a few days – or at least around dawn and dusk.

Injury

Those who find an injured fledgling should report it to the RSPB. They can be contacted on 0300 1234 999.

Swifts found on the ground need help

Nestlings

If a baby bird is discovered on the ground without feathers or covered in fluff, then it is a nestling that has likely fallen from its nest before it is ready.

These youngsters can sometimes be put back in their nests, but the RSPB says you should only attempt this if you are 100 per cent sure you have found its home and it is safe to do this.

It’s also important to remember that sometimes adult birds eject their chicks if they sense an underlying health problem, or if it is dying.

Grounded swifts

If you find a fallen swift it should be placed in a shoebox and kept away from noise and other disturbances. You can give it water by running a wet cotton bud around the edge of its beak.

These animals are hard to care for, so the RSPB recommends contacting a swift carer. They are listed here. 

Baby barn owns should be returned to their nests if they are found on the ground

Barn owl chicks

Some people may also come across barn owl chicks, which normally leave nests before they can fly.

The RSPB states that Owlets in this case do need help, as those on the ground will be ignored by their parents. They recommend gently placing it back into the nest.

Owls have a poor sense of smell and won’t reject a baby because it was handled by humans. You can check whether it is healthy at this website. 

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