BTO Garden Bird of the Month – February: Great tit

Discover why the great tit is a shape-shifter and master songsmith. 

Jill Pakenham/BTO
Jill Pakenham/BTO

Discover why the great tit is a shape-shifter and master songsmith. 

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As its name suggests, the great tit is our largest tit species. It weighs approximately 6g more than the willow tit and has a wingspan 5cm longer, which in the world of small songbirds, is a lot. 

I think of the great tit as very much a UK garden bird. However, it is actually the most widespread of all tit species.

It is found as far away as Japan, Indonesia and North Africa. They aren’t all the same as ‘our’ great tit as there are 14 recognised subspecies throughout its range.

Feeding technique

Great tits thrive on seeds in the winter, and not just small ones. They use their feet to hold large food items such as beech mast and acorns, and then hammer them open with their bills.

The birds use a similar technique during the breeding season when their main food becomes invertebrates. They manage to eat large caterpillars by holding the middle with their feet and then eating either end before finishing the caterpillar off.

Beak changes

To help with the change from seed to caterpillar, the shape of great tit bills undergo a subtle change between seasons, becoming more suitable to each food type.

When feeding on caterpillars, the bills become longer and less deep and when they start to feed on seeds, the bills become shorter and deeper.

Although they rely on seeds and invertebrates, great tits can be opportunistic feeders if times are hard.

In winter, in a cave in Hungary, great tits have been shown to systematically hunt and kill hibernating pipistrelle bats. This has been linked to a scarcity of food during this cold season. 

Large repertoire

The basic song of a great tit is easy to learn. You’ll hear them singing two notes over and over again saying ‘tea-cher’.

It seems easy, but when you consider the fact that in a single great tit population, there will be an average of 40 different song types used throughout the year, listening out for them becomes a little trickier. 

Each male has an average of four song types which can be sung at three different tempos. It’s thought that this might give the impression that the territory is more densely occupied and as a consequence discourage competitors.

Great tits with larger vocabularies are more likely to be dominant and breed successfully.

It is said amongst birders that if you don’t recognise a bird call, it’s likely to be a great tit. 

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Great tit perches on a branch beside apple blossom. © John Harding/BTO

How to spot a great tit

Great tits are easy to identify. They have a black head and chin, white cheeks and a yellow breast.

The key marking to look out is the black stripe running down their front. This is how you can identify the sex of the bird.

The stripe on females narrows and stops halfway down the belly whereas on males it extends between the legs. The bolder and wider the stripe on the male, the more dominant the bird.  

Avian pox

Sadly, great tits are very susceptible to a disease known as avian pox. This appears as a tumour-like growth mainly on the head, but also on other body parts.

Avian pox affects many species and is usually relatively mild, however the strain that affects great tits can be a lot more debilitating, impacting their ability to continue with normal life.

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Thankfully, although it is horrible for individual birds, the disease does not seem to be likely to affect the population. The disease can spread between birds, via contaminated surfaces such as bird tables, or through biting insects. 

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

 

The Garden Wildlife Health project is a collaborative project between the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the BTO, Froglife and the RSPB, that aims to monitor the health of, and identify disease threats to, British garden wildlife.

Find out how to report sick or dead wildlife in your garden.

 

Read previous BTO Garden Bird of the Month blogs.