Life

Take On Nature: Light of heart and limb, the blue tit heralds emerging hints of spring

The blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) is a common resident which breeds throughout Ireland in broad-leaved woodland, farmland, parks and gardens

"THE blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses, and a general devourer. Beside insects, it is very fond of flesh, a vast admirer of suet, and haunts butchers' shops. I have known twenty on a morning caught with snap mouse-traps, baited with tallow or suet.''

These words by the curate of Selborne, Gilbert White, in correspondence with his like-minded friend, Thomas Pennant in 1789, capture the perky, agile and curious character of the blue tit. The colourful mix of its cobalt-blue crown, yellow, white and green makes the blue tit one of our most attractive and recognisable garden visitors, whether as a guest at nut feeders in winter or as a house hunter for nesting boxes in spring.

White believed in studying living birds and animals in their natural habitat, an unusual approach at the time, as most naturalists then preferred to carry out detailed examinations of dead specimens in the comfort of their studies.

He was the first to distinguish the chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler as three separate species, largely by identifying their different songs. Because of his pioneering approach, White now has the reputation of being the first real ecologist and hugely influential in the development of the study of natural history.

The blue tit has been given many names including, tomtit, bluebonnet, blue ox-eye and nun, the latter of these probably from the bird's blue cap and white cheeks. Both its Irish Meantán gorm, and the scientific Parus caeruleus simply mean blue tit.

Interestingly in recent years the species has been given the new genus Cyanistes. The blue tit's diet consists mainly of small insects and caterpillars, but they are happy to use hanging feeders to feast on sunflower seeds, peanuts and tasty fatty snacks. Well known for its agility, the bird will frequently perch and feed at odd angles, with, as Wordsworth writes, ‘‘Hung-head pointing towards the ground/Fluttered, perched, into a round/ Bound himself, and then unbound;'' (The Kitten and the Falling Leaves).

A common resident which breeds throughout Ireland in broad-leaved woodland, farmland, parks and gardens, the blue tit will often join long-tailed and great-tits in the autumn to form feeding flocks, stripping trees of their seeds. They nest in tree or wall cavities but will readily use nestboxes which they investigate as early as January.

This behaviour will be accompanied by the bird's high pitched "tsee-hee-he-hee'' song and early courtship chases through the garden. Nesting begins in earnest in April when the female will take charge of nest building, using moss, wool, hair and tiny feathers to create a soft cup for the often very large clutch of eggs, though normally around seven or eight. The bird is a close sitter, hissing and biting at any intruding fingers. In south west England in particular, such behaviour has earned the blue tit the colloquial nickname "little Billy biter".

The blue tit hasn't left any great reservoir of lore, indicating perhaps a woodland past devoid of much human interaction, although the Rev Charles Swainson, Rector of Old Charlton, noted in his Provincial Names And Folk Lore Of British Birds (1885) that the call of the blue tit was said to warn of cold weather.

"This tiny son of life,'' as poet Walter de la Mare describes the bird in Titmouse, is already responding to some emerging hints of spring with its bursts of song and vivacious swooping flight.

A final tribute again from Wordsworth:

Where is he that giddy Sprite,

Blue-cap, with his colours bright,

Lithest, gaudiest Harlequin!

Prettiest Tumbler ever seen!

Light of heart and light of limb

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