Willow Tit

Unlike the Marsh Tit, the Willow Tit is correctly named. It likes willows, sometimes. Although the Willow Tit will live in deciduous woods with willows and alders, especially if they are wet and close to streams, they generally prefer coniferous woods. If you think you have seen a Marsh Tit on a pine tree it is probably a Willow Tit.

The Willow Tit has a brown back with off white underparts, a small all black bill, a pale wing panel (not always obvious), a dull black crown, and small black bib that fades into the breast rather than having a clean line. The Willow Tit looks scruffier than his twin brother the Marsh Tit. He is the messy twin. His call is different too; a nasal "eez eez eez" or a incredibly peeved sounding "tchay" as opposed to a clear "pitchou". It is the best way of telling them apart.

The Willow Tit's bill is not as strong as the Marsh Tit's so their food is slightly different. They eat insects in the summer but then mostly plant material during the autumn and winter. They like smaller and softer seeds such as alder and birch which they will store and save for later.

Nesting begins mid-April. The female excavates a nest in a rotten tree stump close to the ground. She lines it with wood chips and grasses. The size of the hole she makes influences the number of eggs she can squeeze in which ranges from 4 to 11, though more usually about 7. Mum alone incubates the red blotchy eggs for 13 days. Once hatched, dad helps feed the young until they can fly 21 days later. Willow Tits make a new hole each year so need lots of rotten tree stumps.

British Willow Tits are a very sedentary resident, staying within their territories, with only 3,500 pairs found mainly in Central and Northeast England. Their numbers have declined since the 1970s and they are on the Red List. The lack of enough dead wood for nests, because of changes in woodland management, is thought to be a possible cause. They are also parasitised by the moorhen flea. Their typical lifespan is three years and the maximum recorded age was 11 years for a bird who lived near Nottingham.

Similar to the Marsh Tit, the Willow Tit is called 'parus montanus' ('mountain tit') in some books and 'poecile montanus' ('unidentifiable small mountain bird') in others. The person who named them got all confused as the pine trees he saw them in were part of a Swiss mountain forest. Scientists don't get out much.

Marsh Tit

The Marsh Tit is completely misnamed as it loves open deciduous woods or parkland and doesn't like marshes at all. It is very shy, often skulking in the undergrowth. When you do get a glimpse, it is usually not long enough to tell if it is a Marsh Tit or a Willow Tit as the two are almost identical. They are the identical twins of the bird world. Scientists didn't realise they were two different birds until 1897. Coal Tits can look pretty similar too.

Marsh Tits have an all glossy black cap, white cheeks, a small black bib, a plain brown back and wings, and paler underparts. They have a short black bill with a pale mark at the base which is incredibly hard to see. A Coal Tit by comparison has a black cap but with a white stripe at the back and a big black bib. As for the Willow Tit, there are tiny differences. The Willow Tit has a duller black cap and no bill spot, differences that are next to impossible to spot even on a good day with an expensive pair of binoculars. The best way to tell them apart is by their calls. The Marsh Tit's is an explosive "pit-chu" like a big sneeze or "chicka-dee-dee-dee".

Marsh Tits eat insects, spiders, fruits and seeds, often extracting seeds from small berries like honeysuckle. Their strong bills can get into quite hard seeds. Beechmast is their preferred food when it can be found. They feed amongst leaves or by taking food from the ground and will store food in the morning to retrieve later for a snack in the afternoon. They have a superb memory for remembering where they have hidden things. If you are incredibly lucky, you may see one on your bird table.

Nesting begins in April. Marsh Tits pair for life and, once settled, the pair will not leave their territory again. They nest low down in a hole in a tree stump, wall, or among roots. They don't make their own hole but will make an existing hole bigger so they can squeeze in. The female lines the hole with moss, hair, and other soft material to make it nice and comfy. She lays 7-9 white and red-speckled eggs which hatch after 13 days. She guards them closely and gives a typical tit 'hissing display' if disturbed. The male helps to feed and care for the young once hatched and brings nearly all the food for the first four days. The young can fly at 17 days and are fed for a further week by both parents. The family will stay together as a family group for 2 weeks. The youngsters then join groups of other small birds as they travel round local woods and hedges in search of food.

The Marsh Tit is a sedentary resident with 60,000 territories in Britain. It is mainly found in Southern England. Like many other small birds, they have declined a lot and are on the Red List as a bird of conservation concern. Their ideal habitat is mature broadleaf woodland – in particular oak – with a rich and dense undergrowth. One reason cited for their decline is the loss of the dense undergrowth from an increase in the number of browsing deer.

Scientists, as well as confusing it with the Willow Tit, have also confused its name. In books it is either 'parus palustris', Latin for 'marshy tit' or 'poecile palustris', where ' poecile' is from the Ancient Greek for 'an unidentifiable small bird' (they got that bit right) and 'palustris' is Latin for 'marshy' (which they got wrong).

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'.

Long-tailed Tit

Long-tailed Tits are only distantly related to other Tits. Their Latin name means ‘tailed titmouse’ which sums up being a 'fuzz ball on a long stick' superbly! Pinkish brown above, pinkish white below with black marks on the side of their head and a white crown. Their tail has some white outer feathers to jazz the plain wings up a bit. Altogether, they are 14cm long of which 9cm is that very long tail. Image having a tail two-thirds of your total body length.

Long-tailed Tits move about in a sociable troop, singing their “Si-Si-Si” song as they fly in single file along the hedgerow. In the winter, they pick up other birds into their gang as they whizz along, as being polite and sociable is their thing. They love calling to each other and rarely shut up, always needing the reassurance of another Long-tailed Tit close by.

They are restless and acrobatic as they feed among the trees and bushes, often hanging upside down while munching on insects, spiders and seeds. They will go on garden feeders, but only if there is a good bush nearby for their mates to wait in.

The Long-tailed Tit does a showing off butterfly display flight in spring to attract a mate before they build beautiful domed nests from moss, lichen, and spiders' webs. They line the nest with as many as 1,500 feathers to make it super soft. They are the real wizards of nest building. The most magical part is that their cute homes are elastic and expand as the youngsters get bigger inside. The nests are built in early April and the female lays up to 12 eggs which hatch after 15 days and are ready to join the troop 14 days later once they have learnt the “Si-Si-Si” song off by heart. Other Long-tailed Tits may help feed the youngsters. With these birds, it is all about family.

Being so small, cold winters can be deadly, though they generally recover numbers quickly. To conserve body heat, they cuddle up together on a branch at night, taking it in turns to be the cold one at the end.

There are about 120,000 Long-tailed Tits in the British Isles and, like other tits, they don’t move about much, keeping to their local patch. Their Latin name is ‘aegithalos caudatus’ (‘aegithalos’ means ‘titmouse’ and ‘caudatus’ means ‘tailed’).

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.