The great tit

David Chapman / 03 October 2013

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.



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.

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.

Ironically it might also be climate change which is helping great tits, as generally we have experienced milder winters in Britain recently than in the 1960s, so more birds are surviving 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.

Both the provision of food in gardens and the availability of nest boxes is having a positive impact.  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.

It is during the autumn that many birds begin to visit our gardens again.  Tits and other small birds such as nuthatches and goldcrests gather together in flocks to forage.  They help each other search for food and look out for danger, often calling when a sparrowhawk or cat comes into view.

The great tit is our biggest tit species 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 recognise males from females (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.

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