• Chris Pendleton

Coal tits


Of all the birds that visit our peanuts every winter, the coal tit is one of my favourites. Even tinier than blue and marsh tits, their little whirring wings give them an attractive buzzy, moth-like look as they whiz around the garden.


Coal tits can be tricky to identify at first, especially when seen from below within a mixed flock of tits, but you can always tell them from other black-headed brown tits by the ever-present white patch on the nape, or back of the head. They also have a diagnostic double white wing bar. Males and females seem to be pretty well identical, although the male’s black gorget extends a little further onto the chest than the female's. Apparently, they are monogamous keeping the same partner for life


Coal tits live in conifer forests throughout most of their range across Europe and Asia and, even in Britain, where they seem to be quite happy in mixed woodland and gardens, and wherever they are found there are usually a few evergreens around. The birder’s bible, Birds of the Western Palearctic, tells me that, unlike blue tits, they have un-opposable toes which is apparently an adaptation to hopping around amongst pine needles.


Their favourite wild food is spruce seed which they are well adapted to prizing from the cone, but if you really want to attract coal tits just put out some black sunflow


er seeds. These seem to be absolutely irresistible to them and always bring out a latent hoarding habit seldom seen in the blue and great tits that also love these energy rich seeds. Rather than eating it on the spot, a coal tit will invariably snatch a single seed and flit a few yards to some cover where it will usually grasp it in its toes and open it with a couple of taps from its sharp little beak. But sometimes, if you watch it carefully, it’ll hide the seed in a bark crevice or even in amongst the leaf litter or in the soil. But, just like a squirrel hoarding nuts or a jay storing acorns, it obviously sometimes forgets where it’s hi


dden its treasure so we often find little sunflower plants sprouting in odd places the following spring.


Coal tits usually nest in holes in conifers but will happily take a nest box and, if there are no suitable sites in trees, they’ll build in a wall, amongst stones or even in a disused mouse hole in the ground. Uniquely for such a small bird, coal tits don’t roost communally but curl up alone into a tiny ball of feathers high up on the underside of a larch or spruce frond – and very cute they look too.


While it’s still winter coal tits mostly seem to stay silent but their beautiful musical little double-note call is one of the first signs that spring is not too far away. It sounds a bit like the great tit’s ‘sawing’ note but is always sweeter.


First published in Four Shires Magazine



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