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Punching above their weight

Posted on 15th November, 2022

Is it a coincidence that blue tits - characterised by their small size, yellow below and bright blue above - are known for ‘punching above their weight’? These small birds, weighing around just ten grams, are noted for standing their ground when interfered with. In days gone by when almost all small boys would spend their Whitsun school holiday looking for birds’ nests, they treated ‘Billy Biter’ with respect. Female blue tits are noted for sitting tight on their eggs when someone lifts the lid of a nest box to peer in - those little boys interfered at their peril.

When I’m handling one for ringing, if I want to avoid the pain (and I do mean pain, not just discomfort) of their harmless-looking little bill clamped on the tiny flap of skin between my fingers in a vice-like grip, I treat them with the same respect I treat bigger birds.

They travel too. It’s easy to be fooled by ‘your’ pair of blue tits that return every year to the box on the old apple tree. But where do their ten-or-so chicks that eventually fledge (in a good year) go? It seems the intrepid ones can go a long way. We recently retrapped a young bird in Marden that had been ringed as a chick six months before in a nest box in Guildford, Surrey fifty miles away. Some even make the journey from Eastern Europe to the UK. To the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory to be precise, where a blue tit originally ringed in Lithuania was recently retrapped. A thousand miles is a long way on wings only sixty millimetres long.

An old country name for blue tits was titmouse, an allusion to its mouse-like antics foraging among branches and hanging on garden feeders. But make no mistake, this diminutive ball of feathers is known for tenaciously standing its ground. Even if the bigger, dominant great tit, that usually occupies a neighbouring niche in the garden habitat, eyes-up the smaller bird’s territory, it can’t acquire it without determined resistance from its smaller cousin. Those of us who remember it will note the similarity to the Cold War film, The Mouse That Roars.

So what are the prospects for this chirpy garden dweller? When nature hits them with a severe winter, and their population suffers, they bounce back as soon as the weather improves. Fortunately, during hard times, people have a habit of throwing them a lifeline with food and safe places to weather the storm. The good news is, they always bounce back.



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