Blue tit (l), Great tit (m) and Coal tit (r) | The RSPB

The great tit confusion

This article is about tits. Yes, have a giggle, get it out your system, because we’re going to be using the word a lot...

Tits are small birds with short bills and short legs. They’re always on the go, flitting about in trees looking for insects, and darting in and out of sight. There are eight species found across the UK, but some are very localised (crested tits and bearded tits) and one is now worryingly rare (the willow tit).

Four species commonly visit gardens, and of those, three might be confused due to their similar size, songs, and/or colouring. The odd-tit out in those four is the long-tailed tit, which is easy to distinguish due to its pink plumage and eponymous long tail. It should be said, however, that long-tailed tits aren’t actually tits at all, and neither are bearded tits, as they both belong to different bird families.

Great tit, well-studied

Identification

  • The largest of our tit species, about the size of a robin.
  • Males and females look the same.
  • Black heads with very white cheeks. That black colouring continues as a thick line right down the centre of their chests.
  • They have yellow chests and bellies, a greenish back, and blue/grey wings and tails.
  • They’re most often seen as single birds or in pairs.

Call/Song

Great tits are very vocal birds. Their song is a two-note descending call repeated several times, usually described as ‘tea-cher, tea-cher!’. This is very similar to the coal tit song, and they’re easy to confuse, but the great tit song tends to be lower and slower, though there’s a large amount of variation. Sometimes the notes are ascending, sometimes they’re in groups of threes rather than two, and just to confuse things further, they actually sing higher in cities, probably to be heard over the hum of traffic and other noises. They also have lots of different calls, most of which are variations on little peeping whistles and ‘pinks’. They sometimes make a scolding repeated chur sound, rather like that of a blue tit.

Behaviour

Great tits are a woodland bird by nature, but right across the UK, they’ve happily made the move into urban and suburban gardens. They’re quite assertive birds for their size, and are not shy about getting their fair share at feeders, though like the other tits, they don’t tend to hang around out in the open. You’ll often see them nabbing a peanut or a sunflower seed, and then dashing off to a favourite perch, where they hold the food between their feet to eat it. They also eat insects, particularly caterpillars, and seeds and nuts in the winter, and tend to feed near the ground rather than up in high trees. They’re a resident species, and don’t move around much through the year.   

Nesting

Great tits are said to be one of the most well-studied breeding birds in the world, probably because they nest so readily in manmade boxes. In the wild, they prefer holes in trees, and make their nests out of moss, before lining them with hair and fur. They can lay up to 15 eggs, and both parents feed the chicks. They occasionally have a second brood. Research has discovered that a small proportion of great tit nests included eggs fathered by a different male, and sometimes, nests even contain blue tit eggs. This may be because the blue tits were evicted by the great tits from a prime nesting site, or it could even be a last-ditch ploy by a blue tit without a nest of its own. Any blue tits that successfully fledge from a great tit nest suffer a bit of temporary species confusion, but usually revert back to their true identities and go on to breed.

Where to look

Great tits will readily visit garden feeders, and particularly like sunflower seeds, peanuts and fat. They’ll also use a standard garden nest box, or nest in garden trees if they’re suitable. You’ll also see them in deciduous and conifer woodlands, and anywhere where there are trees, including parks, but also suitable hedgerows. They can be found right across the UK, apart from low-tree areas, such as the Northern Isles.

Great tit call

Stein O Nilsen, Xeno-canto

Blue tit, angry birds

Identification

  • Smaller than great tits, they’re nearly the same size as coal tits.
  • Males and females look the same.
  • They have a blue cap, which can be raised into a little crest. They also have a white face, with a blue-black stripe that runs across their eyes.
  • Like great tits, they have a yellow chest and belly, with green backs. But their wings are blue.
  • They’re a bit more gregarious than great tits, and you may see several together at feeders, or mixed in with flocks of other tits.

Call/Song

The blue tit song is quite distinctive, but also quite difficult to describe! It sounds a bit like: ‘tsee-tsee-tsee-di-di-di-di’. The first part is like a high pitched whistle, and then it dives down into a bit of a trill at the end. Its call is like the whistling part of the song, but a bit softer. Blue tits also have a churring alarm call. It’s very scolding and makes them sound pretty angry for such a small bird!

Behaviour

Blue tits are a little more common than great tits in gardens. In the breeding season, they’re incredibly active, and are out non-stop searching for caterpillars and other invertebrates to feed their hungry chicks. They’re quite acrobatic, and you’ll see them dangling upside down checking out the underside of leaves, or clinging to window frames, walls and roof tiles seeking out spiders hiding in the nooks and crannies. They often make hit and run trips to bird feeders and will pick up nuts and seeds quickly before taking them elsewhere to eat, just like great tits. But you’ll also see them hanging upside down feeding from fat balls or half-coconuts.  

Nesting

Blue tits prefer to nest in holes in trees but will also squeeze themselves into little crevices in buildings or stone walls. They’re actually a bit notorious for their habit of picking really unusual nest sites in man-made structures like ticket machines, bins and hollow signs, anywhere that’s inaccessible to predators. They’ll also happily nest in a nest box, and in fact, they’re probably the commonest bird found in garden nest boxes. Their nests are generally made from moss and grass and lined with feathers. They can lay up to 16 eggs. Both males and females raise the chicks, but they only have one brood in the year. Because they’re so small, blue tits may be evicted from their nest by invading great tits, but they also sometimes end up with great tit eggs mixed in with their own. Great tits that fledge from a blue tit nest will spend their whole lives thinking they’re blue tits, and will not be able to breed.

Where to look

If you hang up bird feeders in your garden, you’re almost bound to see a blue tit. They’re very common, right across the UK, except in the northern and western isles, where they’re largely absent. You’ll also see them in broadleaved woodlands, parks, hedgerows, and even in urban centres, so long as there are a few trees and bushes around for them to feed in. Look out for those weird nest sites as well!

Blue tit call

Coal tit, easy to confuse

Identification

  • Small birds, almost the same size as a blue tit
  • Males and females look the same
  • Black heads with very white cheeks, and a white patch at the nape of the neck.
  • They have whitish chests and buff-coloured bellies, with dark grey backs, wings and tails.
  • They’re less common than great tits and blue tits.

Call/Song

Like the great tit, the coal tit song is a repeated call of two descending notes: ‘tea-cher, tea-cher’, but it’s higher and faster and a bit slurred. Also like the great tit, there’s a lot of variety in the song, making it hard to separate these two species by ear alone. Coal tits also make several calls, little pips and ‘see see’ sounds, but don’t make that churring sound common to blue tits and great tits.

Behaviour

Like blue tits, coal tits are very active birds, and you’ll see them constantly on the move looking for insects. They’re also acrobatic, and will hang upside down from thin twigs and larger branches, as well as searching around tree trunks. You may also see them on the ground, particularly in the autumn and winter, hunting for seeds and nuts. They’ll enthusiastically use bird feeders, but almost never stick around, preferring to snatch their food and fly off, though they may return quite quickly. This is because they tend not to eat the food immediately, but cache it for later, usually by wedging it somewhere in a tree. When a feeder has been filled up, blue tits and coal tits are often the first species to return, grabbing their chance before the larger birds move in to take up residence. 

Nesting

Coal tits nest in holes in trees, but unlike the other tits, they will also occasionally use holes in the ground. They start to breed quite early in the year, and build their nests from moss, laying up to 10 egg. Both parents feed the chicks, and they will sometimes have a second brood. They will use nest boxes, but prefer ones with a small entry hole to reduce the risk of eviction from larger birds. Research has found that they prefer nest boxes hung from conifers rather than deciduous trees. 

Where to look

Coal tits have a much smaller population than either blue tits or great tits, but they’re still reasonably common in gardens across the UK mainland. They’ll readily come to feeders, but you don’t tend to see many at a time. In the winter, you may also see them travelling in mixed flocks of other small birds, including blue tits. Outside of gardens, coal tits mostly prefer conifer woods, though they can also be found in birch woodland and around hedgerows. There are two other tit species that look very like coal tits, but which are much less common, and have a more limited range. Both marsh tits and willow tits tend to stay away from people. Willow tits prefer wetter areas, with more shrubby habitat, while marsh tits prefer broadleaved woodland. Both have similar colouring to coal tits, but lack the distinctive white patch at the nape of the neck, so if you’re unsure what you’re seeing, that’s what to look out for.

 

Coal tit call

Tree sparrow (l), house sparrow (m) and dunnock (r) | The RSPB

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