As regular readers of this column will already know, there is one garden bird with a particular place in my heart; long-tailed tit.

These tiny, industrious little balls of fluff have a wonderfully engaging manner. They move through gardens and woodland in a bustle of peeping conversation, calling with a short morse code trill as they scour every tiny crevice, nook and cranny in search of little invertebrates to eat. Being so small, they are a little shrew-like in their behaviour, always hungry, always on the look out for a meal.

 

I’ve been very happy to watch the long-tailed tit visit my garden feeders through the winter and this morning, I saw some activity which really made my heart leap

Along the hedgerow, where I had put a potted plant in a gap to stop my dog from nipping into the neighbour’s garden, I found a pile of feathers. Without yet seeing one in this new home, I had a new bird to add to the garden list - a sparrowhawk. The blackbird’s feathers were strewn within the shallow depression in the hedgerow, a jumble of downy *** feathers and wing feathers. All the feathers bore the characteristic mark of a sparrowhawk kill, the shafts were complete, with a little bend near the base. This is due to the fact that hawks pull feathers from their kill, while carnivorous mammals, such as foxes, will shear the feathers quickly with their scissor-like molars.

So, my garden blackbird had met his match, but nothing was to go to waste. The sparrowhawk had made off with the carcass after shedding most of its feathers in the privacy of my garden hedge, probably to a favoured feeding perch or a nest of young in the woodlands further up the hill.

This morning the down feathers were being gathered by the dear little long-tailed tit to act as a snug duvet to line their nest. So, the birds which I have fed through the winter, are nesting somewhere nearby - what a thrill!

A lot of research has been carried out on long-tailed tit, mainly in the world-famous Oxfordshire woodland in which so much bird ecology has been scrutinised, Wytham Woods. Males set up breeding territories and weave the most amazing nests; a wonderful creation for such a tiny bird. A sphere of moss and spider silk, with a small round opening, is woven in the depths of a bushy hedge or shrubby tree. It is lined with up to 2,600 feathers and camouflaged with up to 3,000 flakes of lichen! So the few feathers this little tit was collecting from my garden is just the start of a massive effort. Even with all this endeavour, breeding success is as low as 17 per cent, with most nests being preyed upon.

This high failure rate is turned into a positive, with failed breeding birds assisting with the feeding of chicks in nearby long-tailed tit nests. It’s hard not to imply a human character on these endearing little birds, they are simply adopting the most effective strategy to secure the future of their species, but it would be a very cold-hearted naturalist to not indulge an inward smile at these altruistic uncles and aunts.

With such fragile success rates, I would encourage you not to go in search of long-tailed tit nests. Even if your intentions are benign, by locating the nest you could potentially alert nest predators such as magpies, crows, woodpeckers and the rest, to its whereabouts, and they need all the help they can get.

Do keep a lookout later in the summer though, when breeding has finished you may be lucky enough to find one of these spherical masterpieces. If you’ve got time, count how many lichen flakes have been delicately stitched to the outside with spider’s silk!

Keep an eye out over the coming weeks for other signs of bird breeding. Rooks and herons are already brooding, and blackbirds have been seen locally feeding-fledged chicks! If the parent birds are able to raise the chicks to independence, it will give them a good chance of cramming in one, or even two, more broods to replace those individuals that are being picked off by the local sparrowhawks.

Keep up the good work blackbirds, that little long-tailed tit needs another 2,548 chest feathers to line its nest please!