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Winter has brought groups of long-tailed tits back to our bird table.
Their thin tails stick out at all angles around the cylinder of fatballs, a quivering, shifting game of KerPlunk, tiny bundles of creamy-white feathers tinged with a rose blush, two black badger stripes across the crown, poised in ready balance. Or, as Collins put it, ‘a small ball of fluff with a long tail’.
Leapfrogging away, through the upper branches of the wood up the hill, they call to each other as they go. It’s a needling whistle, punctuated by a laser-gun chrrr that belies their cute demeanour.
We play hide-and-seek in the trees beneath them. It is a game I like as I can spend most of it sitting quietly while the children burn off energy looking for me. Each time I hide, I choose a different tree to camouflage myself with, shoulder pressed up against thick birch trunks coated with a lichen filigree, peering up in the hope I might find the beginnings of a long-tailed nest.
According to a recent Instagram post from The Woodland Trust, nest-building for these wee birds can begin as early as February.
Typical locations are the forks of trees or bramble bushes, the latter perhaps providing some protection from corvids and mustelids.
Built out of moss by both mother and father, the round, papoose-like nest is wreathed in lichen and cobwebs. They might then leave it for as long as a month. If it remains unmauled by predators while it is relatively exposed, there is a good chance it will remain so when it has the additional shelter of spring leaves.
Test passed, the pair will line the nest with hundreds of gathered feathers, ready for their one and only clutch of the year.
There could be 14 eggs in the brood; it is hard to imagine where they find the energy.
However, the new parents may receive help with feeding in the two to three weeks it takes for the young to fledge. Birds whose nests have failed – usually relatives of the male – come to help in the upkeep of their nieces and nephews. The flocks we see now are last year’s social bubbles – a big, noisy group of siblings, their parents, their aunts and uncles.
If the long-tailed tits’ sociability helps to ensure successful broods, it also helps them through the cold winter nights. Weighing in at less than 9g, they spend most of their day foraging for insects and spiders. At dusk, they come together in a huddle for warmth, but even with this strategy they will lose an average of nine per cent of their body mass over the course of the night, with those on the outside losing the most. So I am glad to see them stocking up.
Pic: NO F11 Kirsteen Bell 1