The Great, The Blue and The Long of Tail Or Carry On Birdwatching! – Mar 2017

Hello everyone! Despite the threat (or promise, depending on your disposition) of wintry weather, the general trend in our corner of the world continues to be a walk on the mild side. Trees are in bud, Bluebells and Early Purple Orchids peek through the carpet of dead leaves in Quarry Wood and the pond has come to life as myriads of tiny insects swim, scuttle and crawl through the murky depths.


Quarry Wood – Feb 2017

Sunny days see the odd Bumble Bee, Butterfly or two, clouds of Mini Biters dancing through the air and, of course, numerous birds busy with an assortment of construction projects. This year we have had a perfect opportunity to see nests of various shapes and sizes appearing among the leaf-free branches of trees, bushes and hedgerows. The raucous Rooks I have been observing for weeks (see The Velvet Underground, Feb 2017) are now sitting in their pairs on large twiggy structures anchored in the swaying treetops.


Quarry Wood – Feb 2017

I am sure we are all aware that the official Nesting Season started at the beginning of March.  However, given the early, climate-induced, activity this season, I hope that people kept hedge cutting and tree felling to a minimum as well as keeping dogs out of potential nesting areas throughout February.

In a show of solidarity with the thousands of people throughout the land wishing to add to the Avian knowledge bank, the Quarry Wood workers took part in the RSPB Bird Count last month.  A cold, but dry, Sunday morning found us armed with binoculars and waiting by the Quarry Wood pond. Having been woken by a less-than-melodious Columbid alarm call several hours earlier, I found it surprising, and a tad galling, that there wasn’t a single Wood Pigeon to be seen or heard in our allotted time slot!  Fortunately, we were compensated very nicely by the sight of our (hopefully) resident Grey Wagtail perched on a twig over the pond and preening herself towards full splendour, as well as a pair of Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) feeding on the tree buds together.

The individual birds recorded in the greatest numbers during the hour are referred to in this month’s title, and in doing so I run the risk of entering the bawdy world of double entendre inhabited by, Williams, Sims, Hawtrey et al.  Yes, what would the Carry On team have made of the various members of the Paridae Family or, to use their descriptive moniker, Titmouses (the correct plural form!).  This is not a reference to their size, or their rodent-like agility but derives, almost certainly, from the Scandinavian titr (something small in general, or relating to a small Sparrow-like bird) and Mose, the Old English name for the bird.  The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) names eight species of Tit that are seen regularly in Britain, but for the purposes of keeping you wanting more, this month we will restrict ourselves to the three seen in our Bird Count.

The first of these is the largest of the Family and not surprisingly called the Great Tit (Parus major).  Common throughout Europe, the Middle East and large areas of Africa and Asia it is the most widespread of the Tits and, possibly, the most studied bird in the world. The black cap coming down over its eyes, striking white cheeks and broad black band running the length of its pale-yellow breast combine to make this a handsome bird indeed.


Great Tit (Parus major)

Like its larger relative, the ubiquitous Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), or the Tit formerly known as Parus caeruleus until a recent revision of the Family taxonomy, is familiar to anyone with a bird-feeder or bird-box in their garden. What this bird lacks in size, a mere four and a half inches in length, it makes up in style. With its vivid blue cap, wings and tail, green back and yellow waistcoat offset by a rakish, black eye-mask, this Tit is instantly recognisable. They are with us all the year round and, like many of the smaller birds, suffer from a high mortality rate during harsh winters (See The Big Sleep, March 2010).  Blue Tits utilise suitable holes in trees, walls and neat wooden boxes from garden centres for their nests, often returning to the same site if they have been successful in rearing their brood. The life of a fledgling is certainly precarious. Disease, predation and starvation are the causes of many a failed nest. Woodpeckers, Corvids, Squirrels, Weasels and just about anything else that can get in will raid nests of eggs or young.


Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)

Both Great Tits and Blue Tits make use of any offerings we provide at bird tables but their main food items come with either six or eight legs.  During the breeding season, studies have shown that Blue Tits will travel beyond their territory to find caterpillars for their young to feed on.  This usually means heading towards species-rich trees such as Oak and to a lesser extent, Hawthorn and Birch.  Not only are these juicy morsels rich in protein, but they provide the carotenoids important for the rich yellow colour of the breast feathers. The chicks are so reliant on caterpillars that hatching is synchronised with the peak availability of their prey. This is usually mid-to-late May and it will be interesting to see what reports we get on the various webcam-nest programmes and blogs on the success of this season’s early broods.

Nowadays it is possible to go to a pet shop or supermarket and buy many types of bird food guaranteed to attract numerous species into our gardens.  This may go a small way towards compensating for the damage to habitat and food sources we have caused in this country, but only a small way. However, there is one source of nourishment we provided, unwillingly, which Tits benefitted from for a few decades in the last century.  I am sure that many people will remember our milk being delivered to the doorstep by a chap in an electric vehicle (which some of us used to race on our pushbikes!).  We would stumble, bleary-eyed, to the door only to find holes in the bottle tops and the prized top-of-the-milk missing. The first records of Tits prising bottle tops open to get to the cream were in 1921 in the town of Swaythling, Hampshire. In 1950, ornithologists James Fisher and R.H.Hind  outlined the spread milk snaffling throughout Britain in ever-increasing circles from a few centres around Britain. In an article called, not surprisingly, The Opening Of Milk Bottles By Birds, they put forward the case for Great Tits, Blue Tits and Coal Tits (Periparus ater) learning to carry out their dawn raids by imitating birds that were already depriving us of the cream for our Cornflakes. Unfortunately for the Tits, these lessons in dairy-based foraging ceased with the advent of semi-skimmed milk, tetra-packs and supermarket cows!

The third Tit on our list is a favourite of mine as it is with many other nature-observers I have chatted to. The Long-Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) does not belong to the true Tit Family anymore due to the use of DNA sequencing to evaluate an organism’s evolutionary heritage or, as it is known in the world of modern Darwinism, Molecular phylogenetics. What would Linnaeus (see What’s in a Name? Dec 2009) have made of it all?  Be-that-as it-may, it does have a reassuringly Classical name dating back to Aristotle who used Aegithalos to describe all three of our Tit species. The Species name is derived from the Latin Cauda, meaning tail.


Long-Tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

These sociable, and vociferous, birds are more drab than their genetically, distant relations. The plumage is predominately black and white with, what can only be described as, a dirty pink tinge. They are identified very quickly by their long, thin tails which contribute at least half of their six inches in length. They tend to breed earlier than other Tits and construct their elaborate, moss-ball nests in February. These incredible structures are held together with spider webs and hair. Some conscientious ecologists have taken a close look at the nests and found them to be lined with 1500 to 2000 feathers! Long-Tails are one of the few species in the UK with young assisting in the rearing of subsequent generations of birds, much like our Moorhen family which we are very eager to see back in our little reserve this year.

So there you have it, a brief look at three of our favourite birds.  Please be aware of the Nesting Season, give the Feathered Folk every chance to carry on delighting us and if per chance you hear a commotion in the trees above, more than likely it is nothing more than a right bunch of Tits, Or, to quote a certain Mr Williams, what’s all this jigging in the rigging? (Carry On Jack, 1963).

The long tail lunging and lingering through the air,
a mouse, rush tail, a ball, wool feather, peeper,
looking so sharp through cherry blankets of down,
the doll face, easy on the flying twigs trapeze,
pink and white in the light, as light as blowing seed.

Excerpt from Long Tailed Tit by R.E. Warner (1937)

Any thoughts?

Paul Johnson


Image credits:
Img 1-6: original Quarry Wood photography: Lorna Neville; Img 7: Great tit by Kevin Chapman, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; Img 8: Blue tit by Martha de Jong-Lantink, used under CC2.0; Img 9: Long-tailed Tit by cea+, used under CC2.0.