The coal tit

David Chapman / 14 October 2010

Writer and photographer David Chapman introduces the prudent coal tit



Long before the advent of binoculars the term 'titmouse' seems to have been given to any small song bird which couldn’t be assigned to another family of birds. Over the centuries this name has become abbreviated to 'tit', a term which has become associated with anything tiny such as titbit, titch, titter and even tithe. Thankfully its application, in the bird world, is gradually becoming more specific though it still isn’t fully accurate.

There are eight species of bird occurring in Britain which bear the title 'tit'. Two of these, the bearded tit (aka bearded reedling) and long tailed tit, are still inaccurately named since they belong to different families and were only called tits because of their small size and acrobatic nature. The remaining six members of the tit family in Britain are blue, great, coal, marsh, willow and crested (which occurs only in the highlands of Scotland).

Generally the tit family are faring well in the UK. Our generosity in providing food and nest boxes in gardens is a major factor in this success. Tits will take readily to seed, fat and peanut feeders sometimes occurring in large flocks, particularly during the winter. Most tits will pause for a few moments to take and digest food while at the feeder, occasionally taking away a morsel to eat it in the safer environment of a nearby tree, but one species, the coal tit, has developed a different strategy.

If you have ever watched coal tits arriving at a feeding area you may have noticed that once they have landed they rarely stay for more than a couple of seconds. The coal tit is the only member of its family that has learned to make a larder. Individual birds will visit feeders frequently but rarely eat the food immediately instead they take it away to a store so that when times get hard they have something in reserve.

The coal tit is less familiar to many people because it isn’t quite as common as the blue or great tits, nor is it quite as colourful. It is roughly the same size as the blue tit but has a black head, buff belly, grey-green back and white patches on the cheek and nape. It is always more common where there are evergreen trees but it can be found in any wooded gardens across the length and breadth of the country.

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