Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been puzzled by some long-tailed tits visiting our fat-ball feeder. Nothing unusual in the species – these tiny members of the tit family have grown increasingly common garden birds. No. The puzzle lies in the fact that we see just two of them at a time. Long-tails are such gregarious birds. As you walk through woodland or along a tree-lined lane, the first indication of their approach is usually their silvery high-pitched conversation; then the whole gang will arrive, flitting restlessly from twig to twig as they search for hidden invertebrates. It may be a large family group or even, perhaps, two or three families merged together but it’s definitely a tightly bonded crowd.
There is good sense here – not just a friendly disposition. Many eyes look out for predators and for good feeding spots. Also, they are such small birds that they suffer badly on cold nights – or would do, but they have a strategy – they roost communally, all huddled together sharing body heat. Indeed, if a pair loses their brood they often join a sibling’s family and help to feed the nestlings. This is a mutually beneficial arrangement: the chicks thrive on the extra supplies, at least some of the bereaved uncle or aunt’s genes make it to the next generation and, significantly, they earn a place in the family winter roost. So what were my two birds doing unaccompanied in mid January?
Many small birds, finches, tits, even treecreepers join together in mixed flocks during the winter. This explains why, walking in Middleton or Strid Woods at this time of year, you may feel that the place is dead – no bird life at all. But, if you’re lucky – perhaps entering the south-facing woodland edge or a sun-dappled glade –you’ll suddenly be proved wrong. A loose flock of small birds will arrive, softly calling to each other as they range through the branches or fossick in the leaf-litter. I once stood for ten minutes watching chaffinches and a few bramblings foraging on the ground while great, blue, coal and – yes – long-tailed tits flitted around in the upper storey hunting tiny insects and spiders.
So – what about the long-tails in my garden? These tiny birds are early nesters. They need to get together early because their nest – an intricately woven bag made of moss, lichen, feathers and cobwebs – takes time to construct.
The point at which a flock morphs into pairs is significant. Perhaps, as I fill in my RSPB GardenBirdwatch return at the end of this month, I’ll take especial interest in how, as well as who comes.