Wildlife watch: Great tit

Great tit sitting on a branch in winter. Getty images

Our largest tit, the great tit has a black head with white cheeks and a green-yellow breast and belly with a black strip running down the centre. In males the strip is a symbol of status and indicates whether or not he will be a good father – the broader the strip, the better the male.

The male calls with a distinctive two-syllable song, which sounds like he’s saying “tee-cher tee-cher” over and over. A woodland bird, the great tit nests in holes in trees and eats insects, seeds and nuts. However it has adapted well to garden habitats and regularly uses tit boxes and bird feeders.  

Mating takes place in April or May, with the female laying up to nine eggs. Both parents feed the chicks caterpillars and other grubs, and the chicks fledge after two to three weeks. In winter they join other tits to form roaming flocks which search together for food. 


How to help great tits

While great tits might use your feeders regularly, they need natural food to feed to their chicks. Chicks in the nest don’t drink like adult birds do, they get their moisture from food, which is why birds like tits feed mainly caterpillars and other juicy insects to their young, along with other protein-rich food like small beetles and spiders. The best thing we gardeners can do for great tits and other birds is to grow caterpillar food plants, ensuring there are plenty of caterpillars for tits to feed their young in the nest.

Caterpillar food plants are largely native plants, including shrubs like hawthorn, hazel and ivy, plus so-called “weeds” like dandelions, nettles, docks and grasses. Providing space for these plants to grow will help tits and other birds, along with all other species that eat caterpillars and other grubs, including hedgehogs.

Another thing we gardeners can do is water our plants. Last spring was so dry that many chicks starved in their nest, as natural sources of food are less available in drought conditions because leaves shrivel up and the caterpillars using them, die. By watering our plants, even the dandelions and nettles we have been conditioned to view as weeds, we can keep supplies of natural food alive even if they are struggling in the wild.

In very wet springs, caterpillars can be washed off leaves, with chicks suffering a similar fate as in dry weather. Leaving dried mealworms in a dish of water can help to supplement this lack of natural food, giving the chicks the protein they need as well as some moisture to quench their thirst.

Elsewhere in the garden hang bird boxes to encourage great tits to nest. Hang them 2-4m off the ground in a north-easterly direction. Let seedheads remain on plants in autumn and/or provide supplementary food in hanging feeders. Keep bird baths clean and topped up so there’s always a supply of fresh water.

With an abundance of caterpillars and other food, plus a sturdy box to nest in, your great tits should feel right at home.

More wildlife inspiration:

Carts

Accessories

Flower Seeds

Composting

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