Coal Tit

Not as big or as colourful as some of its relatives, the Coal Tit has a distinctive grey back, black head with white cheeks, and a white patch at the back of its neck. He doesn't wear a tie like the Great Tit. Who needs a tie when you have a neck patch? The under parts are buff and there are two small white bars on the grey wings but, being tiny to start with, these are nearly impossible to see. Their Irish cousins have a yellow tinge to their cheeks - from drinking too much Guinness. The Coal Tit's song is like a baby version of the Great Tit's, being much higher pitched and faster.

They love a good pine tree. Being small, light, active and agile, with a fine bill, they can rummage amongst the pine needles for juicy insects (the Great Tit is too heavy for this). They feed high in the tree canopy so the best place to see them, if you don't want to get neck ache, is on a bird feeder. Their main food is insects, though they also eat seeds. They will often take food from feeders to store for eating later.

The Coal Tit nests in a hole in a tree. A favourite nesting site is a hole in a rotting tree-stump, often low down, with the nest deep within. They will also use holes in the ground, burrows of mice or rabbits, chinks between the stones in walls, old nests of other large birds, and even squirrel dreys. The nest is made of moss, hair, and grass closely felted together, and lined with rabbit fur or feathers. Using old holes and rabbit fur comes with its problems. The Coal Tit has the dubious distinction of having the largest number of bird fleas reported from a single nest (5,754 fleas), so not too brilliant at housework. The female lays about 10 eggs, which hatch after 15 days (like other Tits). The youngsters are lazier though, and only leave the nest after 20 days. Surprisingly, after all this childcare, and fleas, the parents sometimes have a second brood.

There are about 750,000 pairs of Coal Tits in the British Isles. They have benefitted from the planting of pine forests and, unlike other Tits, have no problems with Scotland - and kilts. They don't move about much unless they are very hungry. In winter, they join in the communal fun with Long-tailed Tits and Goldcrests. The Latin for Coal Tit is 'parus ater' which means 'tit dusky-black'.

Great Tit

This is the bruiser of the Tit family, often pushing Blue Tits, Coal Tits, and finches off the bird feeder. It is the size of a House Sparrow. The Great Tit has white cheeks, a black cap, collar and throat with a black line all the way down its yellow breast and belly - like a long black tie over his bright yellow shirt. The Great Tit’s back is greenish and the wings are blue grey with a white wing bar. The blue-grey tail has white outer feathers, which is how you can tell it from a Blue Tit when it is flying away from you. The male and female look the same but the male has a wider, showing off, kipper tie. In fact, the wider his tie, the more the girls like him!

The signature song is the one that sounds like “teacher, teacher” but the crafty Great Tit also mimics other birds and invents little ditties when bored. You can be in a wood and hear an interesting call, thinking you have found something special, only to find it is a Great Tit having a laugh. Their alarm call is similar to a Blue Tit’s - a ‘mini Magpie’ churring rattle which you will hear on the opposite side of the hedge to where you are.

The Great Tit feeds on insects (especially caterpillars in the summer), seeds and nuts. Being bigger, it is not so acrobatic as other tits and will often feed on the ground.

They nest in holes in trees and buildings, and like a good comfy nest box. The female lays 5-12 eggs in late April to May. The young hatch after 14 days and leave the nest about 21 days later. The teenagers get a further 5 days of family life outside the nest before being kicked out ready for the occasional second brood.

Generally, Great Tits don’t travel far. There are about 2.5 million in the British Isles (except Orkney, Shetland and very rarely in the Hebrides - as they are not into tweed). Great Tits can be found throughout Europe, Asia, and the Far East, which is a long way for a bird that doesn’t like to travel. Great Tits numbers have remained stable, benefiting from people putting bird feeders in their gardens.

Latin for Great Tit is ‘parus major’ which means ‘big tit’, but don’t call him a big tit as it is not kind.

Blue Tit

It is funny, you see them all the time (there are about 3.5 million across the British Isles) but struggle to accurately describe a Blue Tit. They are smaller than a House Sparrow, have a tiny, dark bill, a blue cap, a white face with a black eye stripe, and a yellow chest with a weak dark vertical line down their belly. There is a white wing bar but you will struggle to see it unless they keep very still. Their song often consists of two or three really high-pitched notes followed by two or three lower ones, ‘tzi-si-du-du’ almost sounding like “I am Blue Tit”. You will hear them sing most frequently from the start of the year to early summer (when they are moulting so don’t want to attract any attention). Their little ditty only lasts 1.5 seconds, so not the greatest of the singers in the hedgerow. They sound the alarm with a churring ‘mini-Magpie’ call that is difficult to tell apart from a Great Tit’s so it could be either when you hear it.

Blue Tits are acrobatic feeders and are quite happy to be upside down. They feed on insects, spiders, caterpillars, fruit, seeds, and fat balls. They avoid competing with Great Tits and Coal Tits by feeding on different trees or different parts of trees due to their relative sizes and which part of the tree will support them.

From the rear (as you will often see them flying out of hedges away from you), they have greyish, blueish backs and lack any white sides to their tails which, if you are sharp sighted, is how you can tell them from a Great Tit speeding away. The flight is fast and direct, stopping dead at their destination.

Blue Tits look their best from early in the year when they chase together along the hedgerows. They pair up for egg laying in late April to early May, nesting in holes in trees or in nest boxes (which are important as there often aren’t enough holes in trees to go round). They produce 6 to 16 eggs (wow!) which hatch after 14 days and the young fly about 21 days later. Second broods are rare as it is knackering bring up that many young. They generally stay local and don’t migrate much except their continental cousins who may come over in winter. It may be the same Blue Tit that uses your nest box over several years.

The best way to help Blue Tits is by putting up nest boxes and feeders in your garden and making sure you clean the nest boxes each year to stop the spread of any parasites.

Like most birds, Blue Tits can see ultra-violet (UV) light. Studies have shown that the blue crown on their heads glows brightly under UV light. The brightness of the feathers is thought to provide a variety of signals - for instance: male Blue Tits have been shown to choose females with brightly coloured crowns as they make fitter mothers - and look sexier. Their Latin name is ‘parus caeruleus’ which means ‘tit sky blue ’. Spot on.