Spring things update by Vince Lea

Two of the three Long-tailed Tit nests we’ve been following have been predated since the last check, but fortunately our third nest is OK.

Given that this is quite a common species and they nest in difficult places sometimes, there are bound to be more nests around that we don’t know about but it is a shame to have lost two of our stars so early in the season. Long-tailed tits are one of the earliest breeding small birds; trying to take advantage of the full bounty of spring to rear their brood and get them fully fledged before the majority of other species start to take the caterpillars and so on. But this strategy has its risks. Their nests are not fully covered by the new leaf growth yet – in fact, one of them was still in amongst bare twigs of a very late leafing patch of blackthorn – so it stood out easily. This of course meant it was easy for us to find, but also for any passing magpie, jay, squirrel, wood mouse, or weasel! Whatever took the two nests did so quite spectacularly, with the top taken off the nests and the feather lining strewn all over the place. The third nest is still OK and by feeling inside I reckon there are at least 7 eggs now – last time it seemed like 5. However, it is very hard to ascertain the number as the nest is deep in a bramble patch with the hole facing away inside the patch. Trying to use the special endoscope for viewing inside was not possible! The eggs were nice and warm and parent birds were close by when we left the site, so there is no doubt this nest is still OK for now.

Long-tailed Tits lay a lot of eggs for such small birds, and play a high stakes game with very few making a second attempt if the first fails. Instead, the adults from the failed nests move off and find a relative – brother, sister or parent – with an active nest. The third bird becomes a nest helper, bringing food for the chicks and so on. This makes sense genetically as they adopted brood shares genes with the helper. Having spent the winter in a family group the birds are certainly able to recognise their closest relatives and the extra help is much appreciated when there can be 10 or more mouths to feed! Once the chicks leave the nest they spend the whole summer as a close family group, constantly chirping to each other to stay in touch. That way, if predators are about, they all know and can hide deep in the thorny scrub and hedges these birds inhabit. You still see large groups around well into January and early Feb, by which time the families start to break up to begin another breeding season. So a few nests produce lots of chicks, and other nests produce none at all, but overall the population seems to hold it’s own – this at least, is one of the species that is not declining.

The image below shows what is left of one of the nests!

bird feathers_long tailed tit

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