The long-tailed tit

David Chapman / 10 October 2012 ( 07 March 2017 )

Find out about the long-tailed tit, a distinctive garden bird with white, pink and black plumage and small, round body.



Long-tailed Muffin, Mumruffin, Long-tailed Chittering and Jack-in-a-Bottle are just four of the affectionate names that have been given to one of the cutest birds in Britain, the long-tailed tit, Aegithalos caudatus.

To consider these names will reveal a great deal about the bird and its behaviour.

How to identify the long-tailed tit

The common name ‘long-tailed’ tit is a simple reference to interpret, in fact, more than half of its 14cm length is tail and even more incredibly this feather-weight of the bird world weighs in at a staggeringly low 9 grams, that’s about the same as a ten pence coin.

Their plumage pink, black and white.

Long-tailed tits rarely do anything on their own so if you are lucky enough to see one in your garden have a look for its friends, they won't be far behind! Their excitement at finding a rich supply of food, or their nervousness when they spot a threat is revealed by an excited, high-pitched twittering and it is this sound that usually alerts the observant bird watcher to their presence.

If ever you should see a flock of long-tailed tits progressing towards you along a hedge then stand perfectly still and wait for them to pass by; they can come remarkably close.

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Long-tailed tit bird song.

Winter survival

At such a small size it is vital that long-tailed tits are well adapted to keep out the cold. Their fluffy pink, black and white plumage holds in a layer of air, their appearance has been likened to a ball of cotton wool and this has given rise to the names ‘Muffin’ and ‘Mumruffin’.

Even with such good insulation birds are susceptible to the cold, roughly a half of all adults die each year and the death-rate is even higher for youngsters. On winter nights long-tailed tits gather together, often roosting in the cavities of trees to share warmth.

During daylight hours in winter birds must feed continually, their gregarious nature is revealed as they feed in flocks roving through woodlands and hedgerows chattering to each other in a high-pitched voice as they go, hence the name ‘Chittering’.

As a group they find more productive spots for food and share the information by calling enthusiastically to each other but they rarely stay in one spot for very long.

Make sure Mother Nature's littlest ones are well fed this winter with Robin & Songbird feed from Saga Garden Centre.

Long-tailed tit on peanut feeder
In winter long-tailed tits can be seen on peanut feeders in the garden.

The long-tailed tit’s diet

Having a delicate beak long-tailed tits are primarily insect-eaters, though they will take to peanut feeders and fat balls in gardens, but don't be surprised if they choose not to hang around for long, long-tailed tits always feel safer if they move on quickly.

Although insects are a good source of energy they are very difficult to find in the cold of winter, however, there are spiders in sheltered crevices and plenty of moth and butterfly eggs to be found underneath leaves.

Long-tailed tit nest
A long-tailed tit nest made with spider webs and lichen.

Long-tailed tit nesting habits

The long-tailed tit’s co-operation doesn’t end with the winter; birds continue to help each other through the breeding season.

Often the young of previous years will help their parents to raise the next generation, probably learning a thing or two in the process.

One skill they must pick up is how to build the beautiful bottle-shaped nest, which is the motivation for the final common name, ‘Jack-in-a-Bottle’.

During March this intricate construction is made by felting together the webs of spiders, along with the cocoons of wasps and bees, and lichen collected painstakingly from trees.

The nest is usually located in a thicket of brambles or gorse and has a small entrance hole leading into a feather lined sphere.

Up to fifteen eggs are laid and the parent squeezes into the space to incubate, often emerging with a bent tail as a result. The walls of the nest are flexible but strong and extremely well camouflaged.

If successful the parents will raise between 8 and 12 youngsters which will fledge during May.

Find out about planting to attract birds into your garden

Juvenile long-tailed tit
A juvenile long-tailed tit.

Family groups

Fledgling long-tailed tits have the shape of their parents but their plumage lacks the pink colour and they are darker on the face and back.

It will be sometime during July or August that these young muffins take on their adult plumage.

Family groups will join with others during the later days of summer and so we see large flocks of long-tailed tits in our hedgerows and gardens during autumn and the cycle starts all over again.

Whatever the time of year the long-tailed tit is a fascinating bird to watch and I am sure that there is still very much to be learnt about the elaborate interaction between individuals.

Read David Chapman's tips for photographing garden birds


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