Richard Hollingum reflects upon the long-tailed tit…
Outside my office window is a cotinus Grace, bare-branched and in need of a bit of a trim, and running over it and onto the adjacent bird feeder is a clematis armandii that is covered with leaves and, I am pleased to say, lots of flower buds. I am sitting at my desk, gazing out of the window but lost in thought yet concentrating on very little, when I could hear a racket from around the bird feeder.
There seemed to be some argument going on with lots of noise and bouncing on branches ,some of which scrape against the glass. Watching I could see that there was some trouble brewing over the seed mix, a tiff between tits: a pair of blue tits, that despite their diminutive stature like to rule the roost, and four or five long-tailed tits were all shouting at each other to gain access to the food.
The stand has two feeders of mixed bird seed and one containing fat balls. The blue tits will eat from any but the long-tailed tits come in for the fat and on this occasion, the blue tits decided that is what they wanted, and that is what they were going to get. The long-tailed tits flew away and the blue tits had a nibble just to make the point, then they flew off to celebrate elsewhere.
Long-tailed tits are a personal favourite and possibly a favourite of many of you. Their little round silvery-grey bodies, their long tails and their eyes emphasised by the dark streak above and the yellow circle around, make them a delight to behold. And their behaviour adds to their charm.
The long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) is a frequent visitor to gardens where food is available, especially during the winter months. In this period they appear in groups of up to a dozen in my garden from about early December, probably as the invertebrate population diminishes. First one appears, a scout I suppose, and then it flies off and returns with several, a sort of queue forming along the branches as they wait their turn.
Cats, we know, have a secret name but normal creatures rely on the names bestowed upon them by us mere humans. The long-tailed tit has had quite a few given to it. In fact it isn’t really a ‘tit’ but only a cousin though I suspect that that is of little consequence to many, and certainly of none to the birds themselves. They are known as ‘titmice’, Richard Jeffries postulating in 1879 that
This tit has a way sometimes of puffing up its feathers—they are fluffy, and in that state look like fur—and uttering a curious sound much resembling the squeak of a mouse; hence, perhaps, the affix “ mouse “ to its name.
Closer to us than Wiltshire, these birds had not escaped John Clare’s eye, which he knew as bumbarrels, a soubriquet awarded on account of their nest shape and not their body form.
Other names, according the Somerset Wildlife Trust website includes Hedge Mumruffin, Jack-in-a-bottle, Bum Towel, Feather Poke, Long-tailed Mag and Millithrum. (At this point I am reminded of John Peel’s method of choosing band names by the random selection of words from a dictionary – or of a silly word competition with my son.)
There are 340,000 pairs in the UK and after a winter of flying around in groups of up to twenty or more, they separate into pairs for breeding. Nest building can begin as early as February in the southern part of the country and judging by the reduction in the number of birds visiting my feeders, I think they are already doing that despite the very cold weather at the end of February and early March. Jeffries commented on the beauty of the nest of the long-tailed tit ‘built in the shape of a nut with a roof and tiny doorway’, the whole thing becoming, alas, a prize for the nineteenth century collector to have as an ornament on the window sill at home.
The number of eggs laid seems to vary according to who you read. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) state that the clutch size is between six and eight eggs though Jeffries writing in the nineteenth century and contemplating ‘intermarrying’ among birds reckoned on finding twenty or so in a nest and presumed that there were at least two females sharing the place. The BTO also tells us that the laying date is now 17 days earlier than recorded in 1968 and that the clutch sizes have got smaller. This has not appeared to have affected their population with a 79% increase since the 1980s. Even severe winters have only knocked them back temporarily and numbers have recovered well.
It is their features, their skittish flights in groups and their tolerance of humans that endears. In the January episode of the recent television series Hugh’s Wild West, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall accompanied naturalist John Walters into the woods to look for roosting long-tailed tits. The resultant images of a line of the little birds snuggling up against the cold night proved that this is the stuff of social media a TV clip really taking off.
Back at my feeders in mid March, and they seem to be coming in less often and only in pairs with an occasional third. The first one alights on a branch of the cotinus over the feeder, the second following but sticks closer to the centre of the sparse cover. The first does a controlled curve through the air and hangs, upside down, on the bottom of the feeder. The second one, seeing all is clear, flies through the new greenery and clamps itself to the other side and they both peck away at the creamy white balls of fat. At some unheard signal they fly off, possibly to another of the feeding stations on their round or perhaps back to building the nest, to return later for a top-up.
They are one of the few birds that don’t mind the rain and in fact I think they prefer it as the threats from predatory hawks and badgering blue tits is heavily reduced and they get to eat in a bit more peace. When the young have fledged the parents bring them to the feeders where they learn to fend for themselves, all the while chattering away. At this stage they are not necessarily aware of the potential threats and happily sit out on uncovered branches and washing lines.
For most of the rest of the year they decamp to the fields and hedgerows and I often see small groups flitting from tree to tree along the banks of the stream. I don’t begrudge them this but it is a delight when they return to the garden in the winter to feed and to break my reverie.
The oddling bush, close sheltered hedge new-plashed,
Of which spring’s early liking makes a guest
First with a shade of green though winter-dashed –
There, full as soon, bumbarrels make a nest
Of mosses grey with cobwebs closely tied
And warm and rich as feather-bed within,
With little hole on its contrary side
That pathway peepers may no knowledge win
Of what her little oval nest contains –
Ten eggs and often twelve, with dusts of red
Soft frittered – and full soon the little lanes
Screen the young crowd and hear the twitt’ring song
Of the old birds who call them to be fed
While down the hedge they hang and hide along.