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The Blue Tit – Birds to look out for in your garden part 2

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The Blue Tit

The Blue Tit

Watching the high jinks of the irrepressible blue tit around the garden, on the bird-table or in the woods is always a delight.

As the only resident blue-and-yellow bird in the garden, the blue tit is easy to spot as it flutters from bush to tree, visits the bird-table or flies in and out of a nest-box. Blue tits are fearless, entertaining gymnasts too, whether going topsy- turvy on a bird-feeder or dangling from a wispy twig.

It’s also worth watching a flock of blue tits work its way through a wood in winter. What appears to be random skipping over the branches of the trees turns out, on closer inspection, to be an eager search for insects hidden in or under the bark.

Tough cookies

The blue tit may be small, nimble and cheeky, but it can be a spiky little bird too – more than able to stand up for itself. If challenged or thwarted, a blue tit expresses its displeasure in no uncertain terms.

When sitting on eggs, a female blue tit hisses bravely at any intruders, and a pair will churrrr furiously if their flight path from food source to nest is blocked while feeding their chicks.

Early days

As yet, this fledgling blue tit still has its juvenile plumage, which is greyer and a duller yellow than the colourful feathers of the adults. Its cheeks are also washed with pale yellow rather than white. Young blue tits only moult out to adult plumage and get their blue skull-caps in the autumn.

After leaving the nest in late June, juvenile blue tits are particularly vulnerable during their first few days of independence. At first, the fledglings continue to call for their parents, who go on feeding them on demand for two to three weeks after they leave home. This gives the youngsters time to master flying, find their bearings and get the hang of catching food for themselves. Even so, on average, nine out of ten fledglings that graduate from the nest will almost certainly die before the start of the next breeding season.

The Blue Tit

No leaf goes unturned

Tracking down enough caterpillars, moths, aphids and tiny spiders to eat occupies most of the blue tit’s time, especially in the spring when it has  chicks in the nest. Being neat and nimble, a blue tit can go farther out along flimsier twigs than most other birds to seek out insects and spiders lurking in the tiniest crevices. 

Before many insects appear on the scene, blue tits will attack catkins and fruit blossom looking for sweet nectar and protein-rich pollen, which can make them unpopular with some fruit growers. Later on, the blue tit partly makes up for any damage it has caused in the spring by catching thousands of caterpillars and other insect pests that might damage the fruit crop. Favourite foods are apple sawfly maggots, apple blossom weevil grubs, codling moth caterpillars and green oak tortrix moth caterpillars. 

Winter in the garden

During the winter, blue tits have to be less choosy about what they eat, and rely on peanuts, seeds and suet put out on bird-tables. The blue tit’s feet are capable of gripping the wire mesh of a bird-feeder firmly enough to hang from it upside down. Strong toes are also useful for steadying peanuts while pecking off bits and for turning over leaves and twigs to uncover insects concealed beneath.

Blue Tit feeding
A blue tit needs to eat up to half its body weight in food each day just to survive. With a nestful of gaping beaks to feed as well, it has to catch every moth it finds.

Grub for chicks

To find the 1000 or more caterpillars it takes every day to satisfy their large brood, parent blue tits must have a plentiful source of nutrient-rich food in close proximity to their nest. This is why the hatching of their eggs is usually timed to coincide with the mass hatching of moth caterpillars on oak and apple trees in the spring.

‘Mark the tree where the bluecap,
tootle tee, sings a glee*’

from Song’s Eternity by John Clare (1793-1864)
(* an unaccompanied song)

Blue Tit with grubs
Blue Tit nest
The female does all the nest-building, forming a mossy cup in a nesting-box, tree-hole or stone wall. When it is ready, she lays one egg a day until her clutch of seven to 15 red-speckled eggs – ten on average – is complete. Only then does she start incubating the eggs, so all the chicks hatch at roughly the same time, about 14 days after laying.
Blue Tit male
During the breeding season, normally sociable blue tits become aggressively territorial. To see off intruders, a male blue tit raises his crown feathers, fans his tail, spreads his wings and swears loudly.

One large family

Rather than divide their breeding efforts between two or three broods, blue tits opt to put all their eggs in one basket, as it were, and raise a single family each year. In early April, a male blue tit starts courting his prospective partner with song and dance. He performs a fluttery flying display, rather like a butterfly, to impress the female. If she is interested, she cheeps and squats low, begging him to feed her. 

Only when the male has made the grade as a good provider does the female follow him to one of his pre-selected nesting sites. If it meets with her approval, she will get on with building a nest, laying her eggs and sitting on them until they hatch.

Piping up and down 

On hatching, the chicks are tiny, pink and helpless; they have no feathers and their eyes are shut. But straight away, they can feebly raise their heads, open their huge yellow beaks and peep weakly to demand food from their parents.  

Soon they have to pipe down while the adults are away from the nest, to avoid attracting the interest of predators. Only when they sense a parent bird returning to the nest with food do the chicks start squawking loudly through gaping beaks until they are fed. 

Blue Tits flying
Designed for agility rather than speed, the blue tit’s short, rounded wings are ideal for flitting between branches in woodland and gardens. It has a jerky way of flying, alternately flapping its wings to gain height, then gliding down.
Blue Tits together
A group of blue tits enjoys a splash in a shallow pool to freshen up their feathers. Except during the breeding season, blue tits are quite sociable. Nest-leavers often form into small flocks for the winter – sometimes mixing with other tits and familiar garden birds, such as chaffinches. Not only is there safety in numbers, but hunting for food in a gang is more efficient too – an insect uncovered but missed by one bird can be grabbed by another.
Blue Tit chicks
Just 16 to 22 days after hatching, the young blue tits are feathered and ready to leave the nest. Fledglings from the same brood tend to hang out together in small groups during their first winter.
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