Long-tailed tits in return to garden

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The number of birds feeding in my garden has increased quite dramatically during the past week.

Blue tits are still the most common visitors to the peanuts, followed closely by the house sparrows, but on Saturday I was delighted to welcome back a party of around half a dozen long-tailed tits, which I hadn’t seen in the garden since last winter.

They really are gorgeous little things when seen close at hand, with their pinkish plumage and incongruous long tails sticking out from the feeder at all angles.

In actual fact, they are not really tits at all, but are more closely related to the more exotic babbler family. Like them, it has fluffy plumage and sociable habits.

Coming to garden feeders is quite a recent phenomenon for long-tailed tit flocks.

On the face of it, it seems an odd choice of food for an almost entirely insectivorous bird, but it could be an indication that they may be running short of natural resources.

The sound of a visiting party is quite unmistakable, as they call to one another continually with a loud “chirrup chirrup”.

At this time of year they are territorial and a flock will defend its patch, which may measure just a few hundred metres across, against other flocks of the same species.True members of the tit family, such as great and blue tits, will band together in winter to form feeding flocks, but during spring and summer, will pair off.

Long-tailed tits, however, can be seen in groups at almost any time of year. Even rearing young becomes a group activity, when several helpers other than the parents, join in to assist with feeding the youngsters.

This activity is very unusual amongst British birds.

Because they are so tiny, long-tailed tits are extremely vulnerable to long cold winters, as up to 90 per cent of the autumn population may not survive until spring.

Recent mild winters and the aforementioned discovery of peanut feeders have no doubt gone some way to upping the survival rate, especially here in the Borders, where they seem to be in good numbers.

Even if only 10 per cent do survive the winter, the fact that they lay up to a dozen eggs allows them to recover in numbers, over quite a short period of time.

If you encounter a flock while out in woodlands, you can entice them to within a few feet by “pishing”.

This is a birdwatching term for the art of attracting small birds by making repeated “pshhh pshhh” sound through the teeth. For some reason, long-tailed tits find this sound irresistible and will approach to almost within touching distance.

z You can contact me by email: corbie@homecall.co.uk