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The long climb of the long-tailed tit

Friday 27 March 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, worried about the decline in many garden birds – including the robin – has found a new source of interest at his allotment: the mass arrivals of the long-tailed tit

FOR some years now, my allotment has been the somewhat casual home of many song birds and the bigger, and sometimes unwelcome, species like collared doves, rooks and – most hated of all – voracious, noisy, quarrelsome magpies.

long-tailed tit
Long-tailed tit
Photo: Peter Beesley / RSPB

I say casual because, until a few weeks ago, I never had a formal feeding station. I hung various feeders from bushes and scattered any other feed on the lids of my compost bins or on the top of the sturdy posts which carry my rabbit wire: my robin has adopted one of these as his very own.

But a few weeks ago, for my birthday, my daughter bought me a rather elegant metal feeder stand and the necessary feeders for peanuts and seeds, so I set about creating a better planned area for my birds, protected on two sides by high hedge and part covered on the third by shrubs as a deterrent to the sparrow hawks which like a good clear air space to swoop on their prey.

And I have a new family of visitors to that corner which, until now, were rarely seen in this neck of the woods: a whole extended family of long tailed tits – so rare to my eyes, in fact, that I had to look them up in one of my reference books, something I have not done for many years.

What brings this to mind this week is a report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which, for the first time since they started keeping records of garden bird populations , the long-tailed tit has flown into the top ten of the most numerous species.

More than 552,000 people took part in this year’s Big Garden BirdWatch, counting over 8.5 million birds. 73 species were recorded in 279,000 gardens across the UK over the weekend of 24 and 25 January. And the long-tailed tit has flown into the top ten for the first time in the survey’s 30-year history. Numbers of this highly sociable species nearly doubled compared to last year.

Now this is particularly good news because the RSPB says this sudden surge is probably due to a series of mild winters. But it is a bit puzzling too, because this past winter had some of the longest, coldest spells for those same 30 years.

Unfortunately, those mild winters were also followed by extremely wet “summers” – if we can use that word in this respect.

We allotment holders have just been told that we will not have to pay any water rates charges this year because we used so little last year, and even that it an exaggeration: I did not even get my hose out for the whole of 2008!

And what makes the surge of the long-tailed tit so pleasing is that it comes at a time when those long wet summers have had a drastic effect on the numbers of more common garden bird because of poor breeding seasons. This saw the numbers of robins fall by 22%, great tits down by 35% and garden warblers down 34%, according to figures published recently by the British Trust for Ornithology.

So just what has happened to send the long-tailed tit surging up the charts? Well, and I feel a certain sense of achievement here in reporting this, it is probably down my new bird feeders and millions more like them hung out in gardens all over the UK.

Says the RSPB report: “Small, insect eating birds like long tailed tits are particularly susceptible to the cold as the food they rely on is hard to come by in frosts and snow, so milder conditions have contributed to a higher survival rate.

sales of all types of wild bird foods have soared in recent years

“Over the last ten years the long-tailed tit has also adapted to feeding on seeds and peanuts at bird tables and from hanging feeders. This behaviour has spread as they’ve learnt from each other that tables and feeders offer a wide variety of food.

“Whereas a few years ago most people simply put out peanuts, the increasing range of food being left out may be more suitable for birds such as long-tailed tits.”

In these days when we, the general public, are being castigated daily by Government ministers and their quangocrat minions for not being “green” enough, here we are in our millions looking after the birds that add colour, song and spectacle to our gardens.

This comes at no small cost: sales of all types of wild bird foods have soared in recent years and I estimate bird food probably adds some £10 to £15 a month to our grocery bill. But I confess to soft glow of self-congratulation rising as I write this because despite some of the worst economic times in most living memories, we Brits are still a nation of animal lovers. Bravo!

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