Why you’ve got to love Blue Tits

Just look at this bird to your left. Just look at it. Some people say we don’t have brightly coloured birds in Britain, but one of the most commonly seen species is a gaudy mixture of blues, yellows, greens, black and white. It’s probably the bird most associated with gardens in this country – it’s the first one at your hanging feeders, and the the most likely to take up habitation in your nestbox. There are 3.5 million pairs in the UK, with a further 1 million pairs in Ireland, and the BTO Gardenwatch survey shows it present in 95% of gardens taking part.

The Blue Tit is a chirpy, cheeky little scamp, charming you so much you don’t even mind the fact it’ll take the cream off the top of your milk. In the past, there are tales of flocks blue tits following milkmen on their rounds, which is both highly endearing and vaguely frightening, in a Hitchcock-style way. This behaviour seems to have evolved from a love of attacking and shredding paper, which was recorded as early as 1693 – obviously some shredders discovered that targetting the tops of milk bottles yielded special rewards. It’s said that the behaviour spread quickly and the birds learnt the habit from each other. It was first observed in Southampton in 1921, and became much more widespread after massive irruptions of Blue Tits in the late 40s and 50s. Some were such adept thieves that they removed tea towels and jars positioned to protect the milky prize, while others were less fortunate and drank too deeply, fell in, and drowned.

For birds so associated with milk, it’s an ironic fact Blue Tits are actually lactose-intolerant, and milk can cause them severe diarrhoea. The cream on top, however, was safe for them to consume. The rise of skimmed and semi-skimmed milk, as well as the slow death of milk deliveries in favour of supermarkets, explains why this once common habit has now virtually died out.

But despite this mischief-making temprement they have their uses, as they’re also voracious devourers of caterpillars and aphids, and so can be seen as a gardener’s friend. They can, however, bite the heads off young tree buds in particularly overeager prey-searching, and fruit growers of the past have persecuted them, sometimes killing them using mouse traps.

If the Blue Tit was a rarity, people would flock for miles to catch a peek at its colourful beauty, but as it is people curse it for wasting a lift of the binoculars as it flits past, which is a shame because it’s an infinitely more attractive bird than many that would make most birdwatchers collapse in apoplectic joy at the merest glimpse.

Next time you see a Blue Tit, actually take time to take a good look at it, and marvel at one of Britain’s great avian treasures. Sometimes nature watchers, especially birdwatchers, can be chasing rarities so much that they ignore the beauty of what’s right in front of them.

(photo by Andre Karworth, cribbed off Wikipedia Commons, see license here)
Sources for some of the information in this post:
Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker & Richard Mabey (2005); Fauna Britannica, Stephan Buczacki (2002); RSPB Handbook of British Birds, Peter Holden & Tim Cleeves (2002), Birds of Britain; RSPB; Wikipedia; BTO Gardenwatch
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Pete

My name is Pete

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