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Blue And Great Tits: Popular Garden Birds

Updated on June 10, 2013

The Blue And Great Tit

The blue tit (left) is four and a half inches long, is widespread and stays in Britain all year long. The great tit (right) is similar in terms of distribution and migratory behaviour but is bigger at 5 and a half inches long..
The blue tit (left) is four and a half inches long, is widespread and stays in Britain all year long. The great tit (right) is similar in terms of distribution and migratory behaviour but is bigger at 5 and a half inches long.. | Source

Introduction

Blue and great tits, both colloquially known as tomtits, are popular garden birds which visit bird tables regularly in winter. Both are widespread throughout the British Isles and you’ll see them in deciduous woodland, scrubland, hedgerows and farmland everywhere. The blue tit is an agile, aggressive, always excitedly active little bird which specialises in hanging at awkward angles to feed, while the great tit, larger than the blue and twice as heavy, often prefers to feed on the ground like a finch. Male and female blue tits are very similar in appearance. While among great tits a distinguishing feature between males and females is the black line which runs down the centre of the primrose-yellow breasts. This is faint in the female but very bold and wide in the male.

Male And Female

A male (right) and female (left) great tit together- note the difference in the thickness of the breast stripe on both sexes.
A male (right) and female (left) great tit together- note the difference in the thickness of the breast stripe on both sexes. | Source

An Agile Feeder

The agility of the blue tit enables it to both explore every nook and cranny of a tree and to feed on peanuts from a hanging feeder.
The agility of the blue tit enables it to both explore every nook and cranny of a tree and to feed on peanuts from a hanging feeder. | Source

Seasonal Foraging

In summer blue tits feed mainly on insects, searching for them at the tips of twigs and shoots. In winter this diet is supplemented with occasional nuts and seeds. Since insects are neither active nor easily visible in winter, blue tits have to spend considerable time peering and probing round buds and under flakes of bark to find hibernating adults and larvae. If you carefully observe the apparently aimless acrobatics of a blue tit through binoculars, you’ll see that it is in fact purposefully searching every potentially rewarding nook and cranny.

In the garden the boldness and agility of blue tits as they attack peanuts hung in a plastic mesh sock is a delight to watch. They feed on almost everything put out on bird table except bird seed, but above all they prefer nuts and fat.

Great tits each much the same food as the blue, but take more vegetable food in winter- particularly seeds and nuts which have fallen to the ground. In fact, great tits are so fond of nuts that ‘intelligence tests’ have been devised where they demonstrate their inquisitiveness and learning ability by pulling up threads with a nut on the end, or prising open matchboxes to get at the nuts concealed inside.

The Blue Tit's Song

Attacking Milk Bottles

Sporadic outbreaks of tits pecking open the cardboard tops of milk bottles to drink the cream were first reported in the early 1930s. The habit rapidly spread to become nationwide- an excellent example of how quickly newly learnt skills can spread throughout a population. The post-war transition from cardboard to aluminium foil tops presented the tits with no problems, and in many rural areas milk bottles now have to be protected as a matter of routine.

The Great Tit's Song

Feeding For Breeding

The breeding season for great tits begins in late March and for blue tits in early April. To get into peak condition for egg-laying as early as possible- earlier broods tend to be larger and healthier than later ones- the female must eat prodigiously. In the three weeks before laying begins, she puts on weight at an extraordinary rate, increasing her normal weight by at least a half and sometimes more. Then, over 10 or 12 days, she produces almost her own weight in eggs, laying one each day. This remarkable feat cannot be achieved by the female unaided; the male must feed her. You may well see a pair of tits side by side on a branch, the male offering his mate a beakful of caterpillars which she accepts readily by rapidly fluttering her wings. This behaviour is called courtship feeding and is essential if breeding is to be successful.

The female tit does all the nest building, choosing a hole or crevice in a wall, tree or garden nest-box. The nest- a cup of moss, grass, wool, leaves, roots and spiders’ webs is lined with hair or feathers.

The Key To Success

The caterpillar of the Winter moth, which serves as the main food for both the blue and great tit during the breeding season.
The caterpillar of the Winter moth, which serves as the main food for both the blue and great tit during the breeding season. | Source

All Eggs In One Basket

In summer, in deciduous woodland, both great and blue tits often rely heavily on just one species of insect as food for themselves and their young. In oak woods this is the winter moth which frequently produces huge numbers of caterpillars. The parent birds need to synchronise the maximum food demands of their young with the single, short-lived peak in the caterpillar food supply. They therefore produce a single large brood each year. This is unlike most other small birds which rear two or even three broods a year and thus have two or three chances if anything goes wrong. It is almost literally putting all of their eggs in one basket!

The Clutch

A clutch of great tit eggs. The blue tit's eggs are slightly smaller but very similar in colour. In both species the female incubates the eggs by herself for 12-16 days, often fed by the male while she is sitting on the nest..
A clutch of great tit eggs. The blue tit's eggs are slightly smaller but very similar in colour. In both species the female incubates the eggs by herself for 12-16 days, often fed by the male while she is sitting on the nest.. | Source

The Brood

A brood of blue tit chicks in their down and feather-lined nest. The youngsters are fed by both parents and fledge in about 15-23 days.
A brood of blue tit chicks in their down and feather-lined nest. The youngsters are fed by both parents and fledge in about 15-23 days. | Source

One In Ten Survive

In spring each breeding pair of tits is generally composed of one adult bird which bred the year before and is at least 21 months old, and one young bird which is about nine months old and breeding for the first time. One half of each breeding pair dies each year. For the population to remain steady, only one youngster would need to be reared per pair to replace the dead adult. On average, however, ten youngsters leave each nest in summer. This means that nine die by the following spring- a staggering 90% mortality rate. Gruesome though it sounds, this is an insurance against catastrophe and is quite usual in the bird world. Indeed, if one extra youngster per brood were to survive each year, the whole countryside would soon be overrun by hordes of tits eating up all available resources and precipitating a disastrous drop in the population.

On The Hunt

A Voracious Predator

The European weasel is one of the few mammals that can squeeze through a blue and great tit nest hole.
The European weasel is one of the few mammals that can squeeze through a blue and great tit nest hole. | Source

Predators Aplenty

The high mortality rate is largely the result of natural causes, especially starvation, since inexperienced young birds have difficulty finding enough food in winter. Also, at the start of the season, competition for nesting holes is fierce. Larger birds such as the starling may oust tits from the bigger holes, and tit may oust tit from smaller ones. The larger great tit does not always succeed in evicting the smaller but more aggressive blue. Tree sparrows can squeeze through an entrance apparently only just large enough for a blue tit, and often build their untidy nest on top of a clutch of tit eggs or, as tree sparrows are late nesters, even on top of a flourishing brood of chicks.

Predators also play a significant part in the high mortality rate, and may account for a third or more of the deaths. Great spotted woodpeckers have a taste for tit eggs and young and can easily open up a nest hole with their strong beak. Woodpeckers capitalise on the fact that well grown tit chicks are alerted by a shadow falling across their nest hole and jump up to the entrance to grab the expected food from a returning parent. As soon as the unfortunate chicks appear, the woodpecker catches them. In the early days after fledging, the inexperienced youngsters may fall easy victims to hunting sparrowhawks.

Strangely enough, wood mice and sometimes voles climb trees readily and enjoy any eggs they happen to find. The prime predatory mammal, however, is the weasel, which can squeeze through the nest hole without much difficulty. Often the weasel will gorge on young birds to such an extent that it has to sleep off the meal until it slims down enough to squeeze out again. Weasel predation is particularly high in summers when the weather is poor and the young tits are underfed. The hungry chicks squeak noisily for more food and are heard by patrolling weasels on the lookout for prey.

Typical Tit Habitat

Mixed deciduous woodland is the natural habitat of both the blue and great tit, and is where both species flock together with other small birds during autumn, winter and early spring.
Mixed deciduous woodland is the natural habitat of both the blue and great tit, and is where both species flock together with other small birds during autumn, winter and early spring. | Source

Mixed Flocking

Anyone walking in deciduous woods between August and March is likely to encounter a tit flock. These roving bands of birds operate from ground level to the top of the tree canopy, probing for food and flying from perch to perch. In late summer young willow warblers and chiffchaffs, fattening up before migration, may join the tits. Later goldcrests, nuthatches and chaffinches also turn up, as well as wrens and treecreepers. Wrens tend to search the ground for food, while treecreepers probe the tree trunk for concealed insects. The small coal and blue tits favour the ends of twigs high in the canopy, as do the even smaller warblers which hover in front of the twigs, picking off insects. Lower, on branches and trunk, you'll see great tits and nuthatches whose greater weight excludes them from the canopy. Great tits often feed with chaffinches on the woodland floor, picking up seeds and nuts. One advantage of mixed flocking is that a large group of birds has many eyes to watch for predators and give the alarm quickly. Another is that the trees are exploited for food on every level.

Irruptions

The general trend in tit numbers is more or less steady, but there are some fluctuations from year to year. Often, after a series of good summers and mild winters (especially on the Continent), mortality is lower than usual and consequently tit numbers are far higher than average. In this situation, the sudden outset of a severe winter, or a shortage of natural food, produces a massive westward movement called an irruption- as hungry birds move about in search of food. When these hordes cross the Channel, autumn numbers in the eastern counties of England reach spectacular levels. Strange reports sometimes appear of tits eating the putty round window frames and even entering houses and tearing strips of wallpaper off the walls. Irruptions occur irregularly, perhaps only once a decade.

Ringing results show that most of the birds in an irruption are of Continental origin, coming from as far away as eastern Poland. Winters in mainland Europe are generally more severe than in much of Britain and Ireland, so Continental blue and great tits migrate south and west in autumn to escape climatic hardship and to find easier feeding. British birds, on the other hand, tend to stay close to home, and, although they may roam around several parishes, rarely make journeys of more than 30 miles. Many establish a circuit of known good feeding spots and visit each in turn.

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    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Deb, yes they do occur from time to time. Last year we experienced an irruption of long tailed tits, at times I was seeing more of them than either the blue or great tit, which are usually more common. Thanks for popping by.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hi Chris, I know, as are the weasels and squirrels, but they're just trying to survive too. Plus if more tits survived than usual, then we'd be overrun. Thanks for popping by.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This was very well done, and I enjoyed reading more extensive material in your article on the tits. I believe we experienced several irruptions this winter and early spring.

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 4 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Great article James. They are lovely and clever birds. It's just a pity that more of them don't survive. Those woodpeckers are really sneaky.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Hello again Pearl, yes I wouldn't be surprised if our tits and your chickadees have some sort of close evolutionary relationship. Our tits also love suet, as it gives them a much needed energy boost. We have the same predators minus raccoons, but cats take their toll. The problem is that most people are too busy to look after a dog, so they opt for a cat instead without thinking of the possible consequences for local wildlife. Thanks for popping by.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 4 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      What a fascinating article James! I loved reading about both tits, and noticed the similarities between the great tits and our black-capped chickadees. Although they lack the yellow coloring and chest stripe, their foraging and eating behaviors are identical. My chickadees really enjoy peanut butter and suet in the wintertime.

      The coloring of your blue tits is very like our blue jays. Their similarities seem to end there, though. Our woodpeckers are fond of small songbird eggs, as are raccoons, weasels and crows. It is a wonder that any birds survive! But Nature in its wisdom keeps devising ways to offset the imbalances, thankfully.

      Voted this wonderful hub Up++++ and pinned

      ;) Pearl

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Eddy!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      These are regular visitors to or table and are beautiful birds. This was a wonderful read.

      Eddy.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 4 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Haha! I know all about the tit related jokes! I've tried to tempt both blue and great tits into the garden by installing a nest box, but without any success. Still, they're a delight to watch on the hanging feeders. Thanks for popping by.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Interesting hub JKenny, although I have to admit that I was rapidly scanning the list of hubs, read 'great tits' and almost choked on my cornflakes.! We have several pairs in the garden and they are very beautiful to watch. I am old enough to remember when milk bottles were delivered to the doorstep and quite often the silver tops would have been pecked through by blue tits trying to get at the cream