BTO Garden Bird of the Month – December: Long-tailed tit

One of our most sociable and endearing garden birds, the long-tailed tit, will be seeking refuge in gardens this December.

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Long-tailed tit.

One of our most sociable and endearing garden birds, the long-tailed tit, will be seeking refuge in gardens this December.

We humans love a good get together and December sees plenty of mixing and mingling as friends and families celebrate Christmas and the New Year.

We are not alone – many birds also seek each other’s company over winter. Flocks of finches flit between treetops in search of seeds, thrushes scour the ground for invertebrates, while in the skies murmurations of starlings provide one of the most compelling spectacles of the season.

One tiny bird, however, takes sociability to a different level – the wonderful long-tailed tit.

Part of the family

Few garden birds are more exquisite than the long-tailed tit. But for their disproportionately long tails, which slightly exceed the length of the rest of their bodies, these birds are truly tiny. At 9g they weigh less than a £1 coin.

Balls of these tumbling, see-sawing birds bounce from one garden to the next during winter, their high-pitched, rolling si-si-si-si-si calls, punctuated with more percussive, clipped notes, announcing their arrival.

These vocalisations help flock members, which tend to be close relatives, keep in touch with each other as they move restlessly through trees and bushes, gleaning invertebrates and dropping down onto garden feeders.

Where long-tailed tits differ from most other birds is that they maintain their sociability during the nesting period. Individual pairs will attempt to rear their own young but if they fail they will help at the nest of a close relative instead – a process known as cooperative breeding.

Sometimes their sociability even seems to extend to people. As a birdwatcher, if you are stood or sat in the right place at the right time, scores of long-tailed tits may drift past without a hint of fear.

Festive feast

Being very small, long-tailed tits are vulnerable to prolonged periods of harsh winter weather. Indeed, losses of up to 80 per cent of their numbers have been recorded by BTO volunteers during particularly cold winters.

Small birds lose heat more rapidly than larger ones owing to the fact that a larger proportion of their bodies is exposed to the elements (they have a larger surface area to volume ratio).

In addition, small birds can ill-afford to carry large food reserves that will slow them down when trying to escape a predator.

To ensure their survival, long-tailed tits need reliable access to energy-rich food during the short winter days. This is where garden feeders can prove a lifeline.

Attracting long-tailed tits to your garden

The small beak of the long-tailed tit is not proficient at handling large seeds. However, this species will swarm over suet-based products, which provide a quick calorific hit. Small seeds, bread crumbs, finely grated cheese and peanut fragments will also be taken.

Overnight, long-tailed tits will bed down together to conserve their energy. A thick shrub such as hawthorn is favoured and individuals will huddle into a ball with their tails sticking out.

What to look out for

Numbers of long-tailed tits in gardens peak during winter, data collected through the year-round BTO Garden BirdWatch survey show.

During spring, many fewer long-tailed tits are spotted in gardens as they move out into the countryside to breed.

© BTO/Dick Jeeves

The average number of long-tailed tits seen per garden – data from BTO Garden BirdWatch. © Dick Jeeves

Identifying a long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tits are very small, mainly black and white birds, which have almost spherical bodies and an oversized tail. In flight, these proportions give these birds the resemblance of lollipops undulating through the air.

Also, look out for attractive, pinkish markings on the breast and pink eye rings. Both sexes look alike.

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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