BTO Garden Bird of the Month – August: Coal tit

Coal tits are a less noticeable than their larger relations, the blue tit and great tit, but these acrobatic, little birds should not be underestimated.

© John Harding/BTO
© John Harding/BTO

Coal tits are a less noticeable than their larger relations, the blue tit and great tit, but these acrobatic, little birds should not be underestimated.

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Coal tits are familiar, but fleeting visitors to the UK’s bird feeders.

Due to their small size (they weigh about the same as a fifty pence coin) they struggle to defend feeding perches against bigger, more dominant species. Therefore, they regularly take their food ‘to go’, eating in nearby bushes and shrubs.

When they’re not zipping around people’s gardens, coal tits can usually be found in coniferous woodland where their finely pointed bills are perfectly suited to picking off insects from amongst the pine needles.

These versatile creatures can also be found in other woodlands, parks and cemeteries, especially if there are ornamental conifers present. 

Flexible feeders

During the autumn, when insects start to disappear, coal tits move onto seeds, sitka spruce being a firm favourite.

However, they are light and nimble enough to supplement their diet with the odd hibernating insect and will go to great lengths to seek them out.

Unfortunately for the coal tit, they cannot always rely on a regular natural winter food source. 

Last year saw a very poor yield of natural seeds and the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch survey recorded a lot more coal tits moving into gardens.

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Average peak count of coal tits seen per garden comparing data from winter 2012-2013 to the average from the previous five winters. © Aidan Tidman/BTO

Many small birds in the UK struggle to survive through particularly cold winters due to consume enough food to keep warm.

Due to the fact coal tits are incredibly light and agile and can get to food that other small birds cannot.

This places them ahead in the race to stay alive during the winter. They do, however, have another trick up their feathery sleeves. They hoard their food.

Food caching

Coal tits cache their food between June and December to prepare for harsh conditions. If you see one regularly darting back and forth to your feeder over a short period of time, then it could be insuring against the cold weather.

It is hard work for them because their beaks are so small that they can only carry one seed or nut at a time.

They also increase their workload by taking each food item to a separate location – a behaviour known as scatter hoarding – but it is worth it in the long run.

Occasionally, coal tits will get bullied by great tits and blue tits. The larger tits follow their smaller relatives to see where the tasty morsels are being hidden, and then extract the food, much to the coal tits’ dismay.

The big question is how do the coal tits remember where everything is stored? The short answer is that they don’t.

If you find an unexpected sunflower plant growing in your flower bed, then there’s a good chance that a coal tit is the culprit.

How to spot a coal tit

If the only tits that you can confidently identify are blue and great tits, you are not alone.

Marsh, willow and coal tits all have similar colouring making them harder to tell apart. But out of the three, the coal tit is the easiest to spot.

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It has a larger black bib than the others, giving it obvious white cheeks. If you wait for the bird to turn around, there is one key giveaway – if it has a distinct white stripe running down the back of its head, it is a coal 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.