Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

Long-tailed titDo you know which is the only UK bird (other than the grey partridge) to stay in a family group through the winter months? It is the little long-tailed tit, a small rounded ball of bouncing feathers with a tiny beak and a ridiculously long tail! At first glance it appears to be simply a black and white bird, but closer inspection will reveal that its plumage also has many other delicate hues of brown and pink, while also supporting an orangey red ring around its eye. In fact, although closely related to the tit family (paridae) it is not a true tit and is actually placed in a different family order (aegithalidae).

The long-tailed tit must surely build one of the most amazing nests of any bird in this country. The pair will often start constructing their nest towards the end of February, taking two to three weeks of hard work to complete the oval, rugby ball shaped nest. The main body of the nest is made of moss, but is then covered with up to 4,000 pieces of lichen and a few spiders’ webs for good measure! If that were not enough, it then lines the nest with up to 1,500 feathers, collected from the surrounding area, including from other dead birds.

Some people wonder why the nest is covered with lichens, as the end result is that the nest is often relatively conspicuous in the bramble or thorn hedge that is so often chosen, making it vulnerable to predators. My take on this was changed when I found a long-tailed tit’s nest in north Cornwall, placed in a lichen-covered thorn hedge. The “pure” Atlantic air had helped preserve the lichens, which are notoriously susceptible to pollution and unlike the “dirtier” inland parts of Britain, this nest was beautifully camouflaged, as they all would probably have been when lichens were common almost everywhere, prior to the Industrial Revolution.

The female incubates the clutch of between 8-12 eggs (15 have been recorded!), and as it usually takes around 13 days of sitting inside the domed nest with her long tail bent back over her head, before the eggs actually hatch, it often results in a badly bent tail! The young grow rapidly and require the parents to forage constantly for small insects to satisfy their hunger. Occasionally, other long-tailed tits, probably ones that have experienced nest failure, will actually come and help bring in food to sustain the family, ensuring that a good number survive through to fledging. After about a fortnight the young are ready to leave their domed home, the nest now literally bulging as it is designed to expand, but even so, it is amazing to think that the whole family plus apparently the parent birds, all manage to fit in together for one last night!

The long-tailed titmouse, as it was known in days gone by, also has a number of other country names such as kitty long-tail. Both these names refer to the look of the bird, but most local names across the country once again take the extraordinary nest into account, so that two of the most commonly found names are bottle tit and barrel tit.

During the winter, the long-tailed tit family remains together foraging busily through the woods and gardens for insects, berries and increasingly our nut feeders. They are frequently joined by other long-tailed tit families and a range of different small birds, which together form a sizeable flock. Safety in numbers – literally. As the winter light fades, the family break off from the flock to go to roost, huddling together for warmth. Once, as the final rays of light disappeared from the sky, I came across 11 long-tailed tits lined up along a branch at about head height. They were so tightly pressed together, some facing me and some looking the other way, that it took me some time to count the number of heads!

Peter Thompson

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