6 willow tit and marsh tit facts you need to know

Discover 6 fascinating facts about the BTO April Garden Birds of the Month.

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Marsh tit
Marsh tit © Jill Pakenham/BTO

 

1 One species or two?

Willow tits and marsh tits are easily confused, even by the best birders. In fact, they are so similar that the willow tit was the last regularly breeding British bird to be identified and named in 1897, before that there were only marsh tits. The best way to tell them apart is by their calls. A willow tit has a ‘zee-zurzur-zur’ call whereas a marsh tit call sounds like ‘pitchou’.

2 Misleading names

Despite their name, marsh tits prefer drier habitats and are most commonly found in large areas of broadleaved woodland, especially those with a well-developed shrub layer. Willow tits are associated with damper areas, including wet woodland. Both species are absent from Ireland, the Isle of Man, and much of Scotland, although the willow tit breeds further north in Scotland than the marsh tit.

3 Big territory 

Both species nest in holes, typically in rotten stumps. Willow tits excavate their own holes, preferring birch, willow or alder. Marsh tits, however, only enlarge other holes, often taking over willow tit holes. Marsh tits also hold very large territories, typically three times larger than that of great tits.

4 Seeing red

Both willow tits and marsh tits are red listed species due to their declining populations. Willow tits are now locally extinct in many areas, particularly in the southeast, and the numbers of both species have been falling since the 1970s. This decrease is most likely due to the deterioration of quality woodlands and the loss of understorey vegetation.

Willow tit (left) and marsh tit (right) are hard to tell apart but the latter has a glossier cap. © Gray Images/BTO, Jill Pakenham/BTO

5 Garden delights

Rare, but welcome, visitors to gardens, marsh tits and willow tits are most likely to appear in the winter when food in the wider countryside is scarce. During the summer they rely on insects and spiders, but during the colder months beech mast and other tree seeds become important. Marsh tits will also take some nuts and berries.

6 How to identify a willow tit and a marsh tit

If you do have willow tits and marsh tits visiting your garden, get your binoculars out. The black cap of marsh tits is glossier than that of willow tits, and doesn’t extend as far down the nape. Willow tits have larger and less defined bibs than marsh tits, and also have pale cream edges to the wing feathers, which gives the appearance of a pale wing panel when the wings are closed.

Find out more on how to tell the difference between a willow tit and a marsh tit.

The British Trust of Ornithology (BTO) works in partnership with over 40,000 volunteer birdwatchers to chart the fortunes of UK birds.

Among the surveys that we coordinate is our popular Garden BirdWatch, the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

Each month we highlight a bird for you to look out for in your garden.

For more information about Garden BirdWatch or to speak to the Garden Ecology Team please email gbw@bto.org

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.

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