Don’t be fooled by their sweet exterior, a dumpling of blue-green and yellow bobbing from hedge to feeder to fence and then back again like tiny feathered globes. When blue tits arrive in your garden they arrive with a vengeance, all needle-slash of claw and lethal-weapon beaks and their fierce reputation has followed them across time and literature.
Blue tits [Latin name: Parus caeruleus] are not the star turn from a Hallmark card sent to us by Mother Nature. They might look as if they have just returned from a stint as cast extras in a Disney film, swirling around the head of a princess, tweeting words of love but in reality they are aggressive, furious balls of spitting ire and possessiveness. George Orwell knew this when he depicted the forensically precise beak work of this tiny creature as it gorges itself upon the feeders that householders hang up to attract it:
A blue-tit darts with a flash of wings, to feed
Where the coconut hangs on the pear tree over the well;
He digs at the meat like a tiny pickaxe tapping
With his needle-sharp beak as he clings to the swinging shell.
In the UK, blue tits start scouting for a nesting site in January and once they have chosen one, will defend it until they start nest-building in March and April. The competition for a mate is fierce, their alpha male courting an avian Tarantella for human onlookers, their calls scolding and full of fury. Once paired, copulation happens to a soundtrack of high pitched notes, similar to the begging call a female blue tit may make when a male blue tit enters the nest with freshly killed food. She will time the laying of her eggs so that they hatch just as the caterpillars on which they feed their nestlings are hatching and the babies emerge looking uncannily like miniature versions of the actor Tommy Lee Jones: all cross, feathered brows set above dark and irate eyes.
The adults brook no competition during the breeding season although later in the year they often move and feed in protective flocks, looping from one place to another in short bursts of flight. I had to remove a garden mirror after it ended up smeared with blue tit blood as a lonely male bird set out to attack and drive off his [rival] reflection and battered his own head half to bits in the attempt. They possess sturdy, well defined head markings with a dark blue-black eyestripe and a skull cap of brighter blue, set against their white cheeks and forehead which, in the case of my star crossed lover, darkened with blood as he wheeled and slew into the glass of the mirror.
His aggression shouldn’t have been a surprise to me after reading, years ago, about European great tits who enter bat caves and peck hibernating bats to death: “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a bat in this manner” reported Howard Saunders back in 1899 but seeing such a tiny bird driven to death by its own desire to mate was disturbing, even knowing their capabilities.
DH Lawrence was no stranger to this titan of the ornithological world and in ‘Two Blue Birds’ their pugilistic nature serves as handy metaphor for the swirling resentment and occasional outbreak of aggressive rivalry between the protagonist and the two women who unhealthily compete for his attention. Mrs Gee and her secretary rival are both dressed in cobalt blue silk, overly obvious maybe although that “blest blue bird of happiness” as Mrs Gee first calls him is soon engaged in a battle royal with another, at their feet:
“And as she was being blest, appeared another blue bird–that is, another blue-tit–and began to wrestle with the first blue-tit. A couple of blue birds of happiness, having a fight over it! Well, I’m blest!
She was more or less out of sight of the human preoccupied pair. But ‘he’ was disturbed by the fighting blue birds, whose little feathers began to float loose.
“Get out!” he said to them mildly, waving a dark-yellow handkerchief at them. “Fight your little fight, and settle your private affairs elsewhere, my dear little gentlemen.”
…”Aren’t they extraordinarily vicious little beasts?” said he.
“Extraordinarily!” she re-echoed, stooping and picking up a little breast-feather. “Extraordinarily! See how the feathers fly!”
And she got the feather on the tip of her finger, and looked at it. Then she looked at the secretary, then she looked at him. She had a queer, were-wolf expression between her brows.”
Talking about blue tits and their reputation for aggression on twitter, I heard about a local bird ringer called Helen Bristol who has been subjected to the wrath of the tit family when going about her bird protection duties:
“We catch the birds in a fine mesh net ( mist net) and generally will check the nets every ½ hour and sooner if the weather is cold /hot/a bit blowy/drizzly,” Helen said. “At this time of year the tits go around in mixed flocks – most usually Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long Tailed Tits and if you’re lucky Marsh Tits, although where I ring, the Bearded tits don’t join the gang. You can imagine this gang all feeding on or going towards feeders and the catch can be large, 25+ in one go.”
Instantly you can see the potential for aggressive behaviour because of competition for food and the proximity of bird species in a smaller space, as Helen explains:
“Inevitably several get caught close together and that’s when the pecking starts. Generally it’s the Greats and Blues that hack into each other. Usually they’ll go for the eyes – not a pretty sight- which is why I initially take a look at the net to see which birds are close together, very tangled or too near the ground. Those birds come out first and are put into individual bags, before being taken back to the ringing station for processing.”
The tits obviously can’t kill with one blow to the back of a human’s neck but they seem to know how else to cause maximum irritation to a creature many times their size:
“The Greats and the Blues also attack the ringer, usually pecking away at your cold hands and causing a lot of language. You know what it’s like when you have a sore bit down the side of a nail? They seem to home in on that. I often get home with little peck marks all over my hands. I find it amazing that such small birds can cause such pain. At an owl sanctuary recently I was “bitten” by a tame petting Eagle Owl but that didn’t even bruise. It was a friendly “please stop”. The only other birds who peck/bite are woodpeckers and some sea birds such as gulls.”
Aggression from other tits isn’t the only challenge these tiny birds face either. They have to deal with a form of brood parasitism which has seen blue tits and great tits engaged in a potentially bloody war about home invasion and who parents who. This happens when the great tit [Parus Major] fails to find an ideal place to lay its eggs and simply invades the nests of the smaller blue tit, who are half the size of these invaders. Being much smaller, the blue tit often capitulates, deciding to abandon their nest and fly away which, at least, protects them from being pecked to death or incurring severe injuries. Interestingly, the blue tit seems to have evolved a way of salvaging something from its loss with scientists reporting incidences of the bird re-entering nests taken over by great tits, and laying their own eggs in it, in the manner of a cuckoo. The resulting chicks temporarily assume the identity of their foster parents, recognising great tit calls as their own and behaving in species congruent ways. Known as sexual misimprinting, it tends to cease upon fledging and the adult blue tits birds revert back to their species specific behaviour.
The same doesn’t apply though, to great tits raised by blue tits. These tend to remain imprinted upon their blue tit foster parents, even trying to mate with other blue tits when adult. So why do blue tits not remain imprinted then? It has been postulated that perhaps blue tits lead a riskier and more rackety life than great tits and their smaller size [in comparison to a great tit, that is] means they have much to lose should they try to compete with other sexually mature great tits for food and a mate. So they go back to their own kind which is especially critical come the time when they need to raise their own brood.
A nest full of baby birds is a place full of conflict and competition: the needs of the adults have to be balanced against the needs of each chick and the brood as a whole. The parent birds are in competition with their own chicks for food and ensuring that their energy needs are met is a finely tuned thing. This is where humans come in handy, in providing supplementary feeding for birds throughout the winter hunger gap and when birds are nest building and hatching their eggs. A bird that meets the spring, well fed with fat reserves like a butterball turkey is more likely to be a winner in the mate stakes and will certainly have more energy to spend on wooing rather than desperately trying to build its strength up as natural food sources regenerate. Comely female blue tits probably aren’t terribly impressed by a bird more interested in a suet ball than the gentle curve of their saffron- yellow breasts.
So help all birds this coming winter by keeping them fed and remember that not all feeding areas are created equal in the eyes of smaller birds such as the tits. Larger bird feeders and bird tables tend to attract bigger, more voracious birds who are able to fend off tits easily and consume food faster, making it trickier for other birds to eat enough food to maintain body weight and causing them to expend precious energy fighting for their share. If your bird table has hooks to hang nut feeders, shells and fat balls from, alongside a large flat table top for larger birds to eat off, members of the tit family don’t tend to come off very well. Despite their supple, dexterous bodies and beaks, they can end up crowded out.
Birds from the tit family are aerial acrobats, able to feed upside down, contort themselves into the tiniest of spaces to extract food (watch a blue tit or coal tit feed from hanging coconut shells and you’ll see what I mean) and semi hover in the air to peck at nut feeders. So hang up feeders that only the tits can reach, filled with peanuts, fat, niger seeds and sunflower hearts. Hang them at different levels and, if you have a large enough garden, in different areas to discourage avian tit fights over food which waste even more calories and energy during a cold winter. These feeders may well attract goldfinches too but the blue tit can more than easily hold its own against them, giving you your own version of Hidden Tiger, Crouching Bluetit in the garden this winter and spring.