“I’ve heard that Tommy Tittle-mouse lived in a little house” began Beatrix Potter in a nursery rhyme about one of our most loved garden birds. The old word titmouse once applied to the tit family in general, but here she was referring to the long-tailed tit, which does indeed have a splendid little house, woven from feathers, moss, fur and soft grass, all covered with cobwebs and lichen.
Of all the tits the long-tailed is my favourite, a little ball of pinkish feathers and a long stiff black and white tail. In winter they flock together and sometimes visit my fat-barfeeder, crowding in with their tails pointing out at all angles. With high-pitched peeps they are barely there long enough to down a morsel before rushing away, on to their next feeding station. At night they are known to crowd together in a long line, sitting tight along a tree-branch, huddling in to conserve their body-heat. In spring and summer they join with other tits in loose flocks, but in winter they seek out their own to try and beat the weather.
The ubiquity of tits explains a long list of local alternative names. Here in Worcestershire the long-tailed tit is nicknamed a mumruffin but in other parts of the country it is known as a bottle jug, bum barrel, feather poke, prinpriddle or huckmuck and there are many more besides.
Britain has six types of tit. Three of them, the blue, great and coal tits, are common garden visitors. The other three are the marsh, willow and crested tits. The long-tailed tit and the bearded tit are not actually classified in the tit family but are usually considered alongside them. We are all familiar with the acrobatic antics of these small birds, and we love to see them rearing their young in our garden bird-boxes. They are omnivorous feeders and opportunistic feeders too. Blue tits are not averse to helping themselves to the top of the milk should a milk bottle be left unattended. That’s a rarer occurrence now, thanks to the use of plastic cartons.
Willow and marsh tits look very similar to each other and have only been considered as separate species since 1897. A marsh tit sometimes visits my garden feeders. The willow tit is not recorded in Worcestershire and is distinguished from the marsh tit by having a duller black crown. The bearded tit and the crested tit are also absent from the county. The first inhabits East Anglia, being partial to marshes, and the latter lives in the forests of Scotland’s Speyside.
As I started with a rhyme, I’ll finish with another and one that I certainly heard chanted in my Derbyshire childhood, “Tell-tail tit, your tongue will split, and all the little dicky-birds will have a little bit”! I don’t think I can follow that, so I’ll just ask instead that you join us at our next meeting, which I know will be accompanied by superb wildlife photography.