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March 2012

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Master builders!

Dick Warner outlines the remarkable life of a tiny bird

I have a small flock of long-tailed tits living in my garden and by the end of the winter they were regular visitors to the bird feeders. Their favourite food was those balls of fat with seeds embedded in them but, if there were long queues for these, they'd have a go at the peanuts with their thin little beaks. 

Long-tailed tits are attractive and interesting birds but they don't commonly visit bird feeders. The reason for this is that they're dedicated insectivores and few of us put insects in our feeders. Most small birds eat insects and other invertebrates during the summer months and switch to seeds, fruits and nuts in the autumn. Long-tailed tits only do this when it's absolutely necessary. They prefer to search trees and bushes for the eggs, caterpillars and over-wintering pupae of small moths and butterflies. The only bird more dedicated to eating meat year round is the wren. I've lots of wrens in the garden and I've never ever seen one at a feeding station.

The long-tailed tits are tiny birds with a body the size and shape of a small walnut and a ridiculously long, thin tail. Their undersides have a delicate wash of pink and they're very agile and vocal, always seeming full of energy. They also have good manners, never getting into rows, unlike the house sparrows and goldfinches that share the feeders with them.

One of the interesting things about them is that they're not tits. They used to be classified in the same family as the blue tit and the great tit but nowadays they're in a separate family which contains no other European species. There are, however, several quite distinct races of the long-tailed tit in Europe - the Scandinavian form, for example, has an all-white head.

By this time of year, they have stopped visiting my feeders and the little flock of eight to ten birds has broken up into pairs which are engaged in the arduous task of nest building. It's arduous because the long-tailed tit builds what is probably the most complicated and highly engineered nest of any Irish bird. The basis of it is a very strong elastic fabric composed of tiny, forked sprigs of moss joined together with the silk from the egg cocoons of spiders. This is woven into an egg-shaped nest with an entrance hole at or near the top. Then the outside is camouflaged by coating it with tiny flakes of lichen, an average of about three thousand individual flakes. The inside is lined with small feathers and the average number used is around two thousand. Normally the birds find enough discarded feathers lying around but they have been observed plucking them out of the corpses of other birds.

The nest is usually fairly low down in a thorny bush. Its unique construction means that it hugs the newly hatched chicks like a down duvet but, as they grow bigger, the nest can stretch and expand to accommodate them. Long-tailed tits have large broods - eight to twelve eggs as a rule and clutches of fifteen have been recorded - so an elastic nest is very useful.

Despite these miraculous nests, long-tailed tits have a very poor rate of breeding success. One study reported that only seventeen percent of pairs managed to rear their brood. The main reason for failure is predation. Despite the camouflage, magpies or squirrels manage to rob most of the nests. When this happens, the nest is destroyed by the predator robbing the eggs or chicks. The long-tailed tits seldom go to the bother of building a second one. Instead what normally happens is that they seek out another pair with a viable nest and help to rear their brood. Nests with two parents and two foster parents have a much higher success rate.

During the summer, after the young have fledged, the flocks form up again. Each flock seems to be a clan of closely related birds. In many cases it is made up of young birds hatched that spring, their parents, their foster parents and possibly a few un-mated birds. There can be up to thirty birds in a flock, though a smaller number is much commoner. Occasionally other species, such as blue tits or coal tits, join the flock.

The reason long-tailed tits lay so many eggs is that there is a high winter mortality rate and large broods are necessary to replace the losses. In some winters eighty percent of the population dies. This is because they are so small - the smaller a bird the more likely it is to die of hypothermia. A strategy they use to combat this is communal roosting and on cold nights the entire flock will huddle together into a ball. In heat-loss terms this effectively transforms them into a much larger bird and makes it much more likely that they'll survive - particularly the ones in the middle of the ball. Wrens, which are similar in body size, use the same strategy.

The flocks are territorial though, paradoxically, they also travel in search of winter food. It's a sort of moveable territory with an exclusion zone around it. And if a flock of these charming birds visits your garden they're well worth observing, particularly at this time of year.



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