The Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is a small tyrant flycatcher with a bifurcated crest, characteristic of the genus Anairetes. It has a black face and chin with coarse black and white streaks on breast and back. Among the eight species of Anairetes tit-tyrants, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is most similar to Black-crested Tit-Tyrant (Anairetes nigrocristatus), but there is only minimal range overlap of these two species (in Ancash, Peru); see Similar Species.
The Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is similar in size and shape to several other species of small tyrant flycatchers. In its range, it could only be confused with other Anairetes species, all of which possess the bifurcated crest that is diagnostic of the genus. Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is one of two tit-tyrants (Anairetes reguloides and Anairetes nigrocristatus) that lack gray or brown plumage in the adult male form.
Less is known about field identification of juvenile Anairetes, and juveniles should be identified with caution in areas where multiple species occur in sympatry. Generally juveniles of Anairetes have reduced crests, and dull gray or brown plumage with wingbars and some streaking on the underparts. Juvenile Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant generally can be distinguished from congeners by its dark brown, buff streaked back, buffy supralores, and buffy half-ring below the eye. Juvenile Black-crested Tit-Tyrant (A. nigrocristatus) have a whiter nape patch and the back is more olivaeous, streaked with black. Juvenile Tufted Tit-Tyrant (A. parulus) and Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant (A. flavirostris) have shorter crests but otherwise look similar to adults (Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990).
Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is most similar to the larger, more northerly distributed Black-crested Tit-Tyrant. Both species have broad black and white streaks on the body, but Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is smaller with a shorter crest; in addition, the Black-crested Tit-Tyrant has more extensive white tips to the undersides of the rectrices 11-18 mm on the outer rectrices of nigrocristatus, compared to 4-5 mm in A. reguloides albiventris; Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990). These two species have limited range overlap, and where they potentially meet in Ancash, Peru, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is generally found below 280 0m while Black-crested Tit-Tyrant is found up to 4000 m (Schulenberg et al. 2007).
Other than with Black-crested Tit-Tyrant, Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant could be confused with Yellow-billed Tit-Tyrant; however, Yellow-bellied Tit-Tyrant is smaller, lacks sharply contrasting black streaks on back, and has less black on face with a white supercilium (Ridgely and Tudor 1994, Jaramillo 2003). Tufted Tit-Tyrant also overlaps in distribution with Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant at middle and high elevations from Ancash south to Ayacucho, but adults of the former species have pale irides, a dark mandible, and unstreaked grayish-brown backs.
The Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant is sexually dimorphic with more striking black and white plumage in males (Jaramillo 2003). The male nominate race has few central crown feather and elongated lateral crown feathers, creating a thin black bifurcated crest. Characteristics of the adult male Pied-crested Tit-tyrant include: white nape patch positioned directly behind crest, entirely black face and throat, coarse black and white streaks on breast and back, black tail with white outer web of outer rectrices, narrow white tips at ends of rectrices, and a pale yellow tinge on the belly in fresh plumage. There is variation in belly color between the two subspecies. The southern subspecies, reguloides, has more pale yellow on the belly while yellow may be absent in the northern subspecies, albiventris. Pied-crested Tit-Tyrant also has white tipped wing-coverts that create two broad, strongly contrasting wingbars (Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990, Ridgely and Tudor 1994, Jaramillo 2003).
Females are similar to males but have a shorter crest, the dark parts are a buffy dark gray rather than black, and the throat is finely streaked with white. Females also have a white crescent under the eye, creating a half eye-ring (Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990).
Birds of the subspecies albiventris are almost indistinguishable from the nominate race, but in fresh plumage albiventris has longer crest, longer tail (50 mm instead of 46 mm) and broader white patches on nape, crown, belly, and tips of outer rectrices (4-5 mm) (Chapman 1924, Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990).
According to Fjeldså and Krabbe (1990), Jaramillo (2003), and Schulenberg et al. (2007), juvenile Pied-crested Tit-Tyrants have strongly reduced crests, dark buffy brown upperparts, and pale buffy underparts. Fjeldså and Krabbe (1990) also report that juvenile birds may have a narrow fuscous breastband with streaks on the flanks.
Irides dark brown. Maxilla black, mandible yellow to bright red-orange with a dark tip. Tarsi black (Fjeldså and Krabbe 1990, Jaramillo 2003, Schulenberg et al. 2007).
Measurements of one adult male specimen (vouchered at the Museum of Southwestern Biology, University of New Mexico, tissue number NK163041), collected at Carampoma, Peru in the department of Lima (3973 m):
exposed culmen 9.13 mm
wing chord 51.31 mm
tail 46.90 mm
tarsus 21.30 mm
lateral crown feather length 20.16 mm
Female body mass averages 6.7 g (n=5, st.dev.=0.18) (Museum of Southwestern Biology specimen data).