The great tit

David Chapman / 03 October 2013 ( 26 September 2017 )

At a time when much of our wildlife is in decline, the great tit is one species which appears to have bucked the trend but not necessarily because of an increase in its own productivity.



At a time when much of our wildlife is in decline the great tit is one species which appears to have bucked the trend but not necessarily because of an increase in its own productivity.

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How to identify great tits

Of the five commonly-seen tit species (coal, blue, marsh, long-tailed and great) the great tit is the largest and one of the most colourful with a beautiful green back contrasting with a black and white head. Its yellow breast is separated by a black band which is wider in males than in females so it is usually possible to distinguish between the genders (the photo shows a male).

The great tit is known for having a wide range of calls which can be confused with many other species but it has one for which it is well known, a two-tone 'teacher-teacher' call, which is distinctive.

Great tit birdsong

Great tit numbers

Many garden birds such as the house sparrow, starling and song thrush have declined dramatically over the last quarter of a century but during that time the UK population of the great tit, along with some other tit species, has increased steadily. But according to BTO (British Trust for Ornithology) figures the number of young raised per nest has not changed significantly, in fact in some areas and in some seasons it has fallen.

Diet

Great tits, along with the rest of its family, rely heavily upon the crop of caterpillars emerging at the same time as they are feeding their young. As a result great tits are now laying their eggs on average eleven days earlier than they were in the 1960s but with varying weather conditions in spring and early summer there is often a mismatch in the timings of great tit young and the greatest abundance of caterpillars.

It is thought that such a mismatch occurred in the early spring of 2016 when the weather in some areas was wet and cold. Fewer caterpillars were available at the crucial time when many tit families were feeding their young. This led to fewer young birds surviving, a fact which is borne out by the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch figures for January 2017 showing a drop of at least 10% in the records of great, blue and coal tits from the previous year.

Ironically it might also be climate change which is helping great tits, as generally we have experienced milder winters in Britain recently, particularly when compared with the exceptionally cold winters of the 1960s so a greater proportion of youngsters can survive the winter to breed the following year. This is one reason why the population of great tits has increased, the other key factor is the support they receive in our gardens.

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Attracting great tits to the garden

Both the provision of food in gardens and the availability of nest boxes is having a positive impact on great tit numbers. Without them it seems likely that great tits, and others, would be declining so it is vital that we continue to support our garden birds.

In the wild great tits would make their nests in natural tree holes and even holes in banks and walls. In some areas of the UK there is a distinct shortage of suitable nest sites with old trees in short supply and many species of bird vying for the best nest sites. Nest boxes offer an easy and, in many cases, better alternative.

Nest boxes are readily available from retailers nowadays though many are unnecessarily, and even unhelpfully, ornate. A simple rectangular design with an access hole of diameter 28mm is important. A sloping roof will help shed water and small drainage holes in the base are useful. The thicker the wood used in making the box the better, this acts as insulation against cold and hot weather, there is nothing worse than flimsy, thin wood. Great tits don’t need a perch below their nest hole so having one is only likely to assist predators such as magpies. Where possible the nest box should be placed out of direct sunlight in the middle of the day at about head height.

Find out where to position a bird nestbox

Great tit eggs in nesting box
Great tit eggs in a nesting box

Nesting habits and raising young

When the great tits have selected a nest hole the female builds the nest on her own. She builds a cup of moss and grass, lining it with softer materials such as hair and fur. I usually provide help for our garden birds by putting out sheep’s fleece, dog’s fur or even my own hair when they are nest-building. I also make sure that we continue feeding the birds in our garden at least until the job of nest-building is complete as I think this must save them a lot of time and effort when they have other things on their mind!

Once the nest is finished the female great tit will lay a clutch of, usually, between seven and nine eggs. She lays an egg each day and during this time her partner will provide her with about a third of her daily food requirements which are made greater by extra demands of producing eggs. Each egg amounts to about 10% of her own body weight. So the effort required to lay a clutch is enormous.

Proper, round-the-clock incubation doesn’t start until all the eggs are laid, this way the female can be sure that the eggs will all hatch at roughly the same time. Only the female will incubate the eggs though both male and female help feed the young which will remain in the nest for about 20 days after hatching.

The young are fed largely on caterpillars. It is though that between 60% and 90% of their diet is caterpillar, the rest will be other insects. Tits which nest in broad-leaved woodland are more successful in raising their young because they have access to a better supply of caterpillars. In gardens with fewer trees it can be difficult to find enough caterpillars and so the timing of clutch with peak caterpillar activity is even more vital.

Young great tits
Young great tits recently fledged

After fledging the young birds will still receive food from their parents until they have mastered the art of finding it for themselves. Even then they will stay in family groups through the summer. Later in the summer and during the autumn many families of tits get together with other small birds such as nuthatches and goldcrests to roam through our gardens and surrounding woodlands to search for food together. They help each other search for food and look out for danger, often calling when a sparrowhawk or cat comes into view.

Natural food is in plentiful supply during the autumn but as we get into winter once again these birds will be grateful for our assistance. Fortunately a greater number of us are prepared to put out food for birds than ever before and the range of bird food is increasing all the time. Great tits are versatile in their diet but love peanut feeders, sunflower hearts and fat balls. If they find enough food to survive the winter the whole process starts again next year, typically a great tit might expect to live for three years though the oldest on record was almost 14 years.

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