Long tailed tits - the ties that bind

26 December 2018 | Posted in Michael Blencowe , Birds
Long tailed tits - the ties that bind
Mark Greco

“Who are these people?” You’ve hardly seen them all year yet here you are, full of turkey, paper hat askew, squashed between them on the sofa. It’s Christmas and, like it or not, there’s no escaping your family. On a branch out in the cold darkness of the garden, also sandwiched between aunts, brothers, cousins and daughters, a tiny bird is asking a similar question (except he probably isn’t wearing a novelty hat).

Long-tailed tits and humans. Two of Britain’s most social species. And just like a visit from your relatives, the arrival of a long-tailed tit flock in your garden will turn tranquillity into chaos. It’s like someone has emptied a box of feathered fireworks over the fence. They manically bicker on the bird feeder and swing acrobatically upside-down on the fat balls, all the while trilling, rattling and screaming ‘eee-heee-heee’ like a troupe of Michael Jackson impersonators. What you’re witnessing is a group of roving relatives, roaming the neighbourhood looking to pillage your peanuts. This posse of outlaws consists of in-laws, brothers, sons, daughters. It’s a family affair. With their gorgeous pink, black and white plumage and those ridiculously long tails these flying lollypops must qualify for Britain’s cutest bird. Then suddenly they’re gone and the pulse rate of the garden returns to normal.

By late-winter this extended family will drift apart, find new partners and start new families. In March, the foundations are laid for an epic construction. Moss building bricks are lashed together with ropes of sticky spider’s webs.The walls rise, a camouflage cladding of lichen is added to the roof and a cosy filling of a thousand feathers lines the interior. The end result looks a crocheted stomach and soon there will be plenty of rumbling from inside as eight hungry chicks demand to be fed.

But raising a large family can take its toll. The constant hunt for insects can exhaust a parent almost to breaking point. And that’s when something unusual and wonderful happens. Their family arrives to save them. Aunties and uncles who have not been successful raising their own family that year will selflessly help the parents and feed their nephews and nieces.

Once the children have flown the nest, the whole gang remains together and joins with other siblings to form your chaotic neighbourhood feeding flock. But the biggest challenge of the year still awaits: winter. Freezing night-time temperatures exact a heavy toll on our garden birds. And that’s why at Christmas, hidden deep in a hedge, you’ll find the extended family of long-tailed tits, huddled together, supporting each other on a frosty branch, their tiny hearts beating, sharing their warmth and surviving. 

So if you’re wondering why family is so important look out of the window and think of that long-tailed tit. Because none of us can get through this on our own.

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