Your garden's acrobats

OF all our garden birds, the most acrobatic are the tits. Of the eight species found in the UK, blue and great tits are two of our commonest garden birds, while coal and long-tailed tits are increasingly frequent garden visitors.

By Tracey Sparling

OF all our garden birds, the most acrobatic are the tits.

Of the eight species found in the UK, blue and great tits are two of our commonest garden birds, while coal and long-tailed tits are increasingly frequent garden visitors.

You may be lucky enough to see a marsh tit, but willow, crested and bearded tits are very unlikely to be seen in gardens. The reasons for this are varied.

Willow tits are increasingly rare, while crested tits live only in Scotland's Caledonian pine forests. Bearded tits are reedbed specialists, and favour places like RSPB Minsmere nature reserve on the Suffolk coast.

Blue tits are one of our best-loved birds, for various reasons. Their vivid colours give them an almost exotic appearance. They have a delicately patterned blue and white head, green back and blue wings and tail, and a yellow breast. No other garden bird has such a bright blue colouration, unless you see a kingfisher visiting your pond!

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If you have a nestbox in the garden, there is a very good chance that a pair of blue tits will set up home in the spring and try to rear a family.

Blue tits' acrobatic skills and agility are a joy to watch. In woodland, they will find insects under leaves or extract seeds from catkins on tiny twigs, whilst their ability to hang upside down to find food is another of their useful adaptations. Blue tits will use this skill to turn their attention to seed or peanut feeders and fat balls in our gardens with equal aplomb.

Blue tits are infamous for their ability to open milk bottle tops to feed on the cream. This became particularly common during the 1960s and 70s, but the demise of the milkman, and increasing availability of other food, means that you are unlikely to catch a blue tit raiding milk bottles today.

Great tits are much bigger than their blue tit cousins. They also have yellow breasts, a green back and blue wings and tail, but are not so bright. Great tits are easily distinguished from blue tits by their black head, white cheeks and black 'tie'.

Like blue tits, great tits are agile birds that are quite at home on garden bird feeders. They will also readily take to nestboxes - providing the hole is big enough. Great tits need a 28 mm hole, while 25 mm is sufficient for blue tits. Being larger, great tits tend to be one of the most dominant birds on feeders.

Coal tits look similar to great tits but are even smaller than blue tits. They lack any yellow in their plumage, being more buff-brown on the breast. Their head pattern is similar to great tits, with white cheeks and a white spot on the back of the otherwise black head. They have grey backs and two white bars on their dark grey wings.

Coal tits are most at home in conifer woodlands where they feed on pine seeds and tiny insects and spiders in the canopy. In winter, when food can be in short supply, they often join blue and great tits in mixed flocks to forage for food in woods and gardens.

Being smaller than the more familiar species, coal tits are more timid. They often grab a sunflower seed and fly off with it to eat somewhere quieter. They may also bury the seed to find later in much the same way as jays or grey squirrels bury acorns. This helps explain why sunflowers can suddenly appear in unusual places, such as growing out of a hanging basket.

Long-tailed tits are lovely pink, white and black birds, with long tails that equal the rest of the body in length. They are not true tits, but behave in a similar manner.

Long-tailed tits are very social birds, often remaining in extended family parties throughout the year. They are also very vocal, rarely stopping their high-pitched chatter that once heard is easily recognised. In gardens, they may be attracted to seed or peanut feeders, or especially fat balls.

Marsh tits and willow tits are extremely similar to each other, and were thought to be the same species until 1897. They have black caps, brown backs and whitish breasts, causing potential confusion with a recent arrival in gardens, the blackcap. The marsh tit is the more likely bird to be seen however, as willow tits are very rare garden birds and rapidly declining in the UK.

ARE you wondering what to buy a relative or friend for Christmas?

If so, why not buy your loved one an RSPB gift membership, or RSPB Wildlife Explorers membership for the children? The lucky recipient will get magazines and can visit RSPB nature reserves like Minsmere, for free.

You could buy them a new bird feeder, plus seeds to fill it. Or how about a new nestbox, with plenty of time to put it up before the spring? As well as tit boxes, the RSPB sells nestboxes for robins, wrens, sparrows, and even bats, hedgehogs or bees.

There are binoculars and telescopes to help you to get better views of your garden birds, and field guides and CD-ROMs to help you identify wildlife more easily.

You could even treat your nearest and dearest to a new coat and help them keep warm on your post Christmas, calorie-burning walks. The Minsmere shop is open daily from 10am to 4pm, or order on-line at www.rspb.org.uk

At Minsmere unless stated:

· November 26, 10am-4pm: Optics day at Minsmere

· November 29 and December 14 at 10am: Birdwatching for beginners

· December 2, 7, 16 and 20 at 10am: Discovering Minsmere

· December 2 at 11am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings Farmers Market

· December 7 at 7.30pm: Birds of the Mediterranean, talk by Bill Baston to RSPB Woodbridge local group at Woodbridge Community Hall (contact 01728 723155 for details)

· December 11 at 10am: Avocet cruise from Orford Quay (book via Minsmere)

· December 12 at 7am: What's About at Minsmere?

· December 14 at 7.30pm: RSPB Ipswich local group Christmas social at Sidegate Lane Primary School, Ipswich (01473 718106)

For more details contact: The RSPB, UK Headquarters on 01767 680551 or e-mail enquiries@rsspb.org.uk, RSPB Minsmere nature reserve, at Westleton near Saxmundham, on 01728 648281, or e-mail minsmere@rspb.org.uk. See also www.rspb.org.uk

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