When we first met, Bernie had no interest in garden birds. He professes never to have noticed a single bird. These days he takes on the task of cleaning out and siting our bird boxes and earlier this year he devoted significant time to constructing and trialling protection for last year’s swallows’ nest in which, very sadly, the three babies drowned during a downpour. (We have swallows nesting again now. We’re hoping for a happier ending this year.)
One of the boxes we inherited is positioned on our balcony, just a yard from the large, opening glass doors into the living room. Old and battered, it has never had occupants since we’ve been here and I suggested it might be reappointed elsewhere. B chose to repair it a little and hang it back in the same spot. Birds prefer their boxes to be facing south-east. This one faces north-west. It seemed to have nothing in its favour. But this year it has had occupants!
Would they, wouldn’t they? We watched the great tits coming and going, bringing in the occasional piece of nesting material but never frequently enough to convince us they would stay. Were they laying? All the way along I maintained that they would never succeed; the box is so close to the house; it’s facing the wrong way… I was wrong.
Soon they were back and forth, bringing in caterpillars. Gradually the noises inside the box grew louder and more insistent. And now they have fledged. As we watched the drama unfold, I realised – not for the first time – how little I know. Great tits are such a familiar sight in our British gardens, yet I realise that like Bernie, I’ve not really looked at them before.
Now I know that there is a difference between the sexes, with males having a broader and longer black chest stripe. It is just the female who constructs the nest and she generally lays an egg a day, early in the morning, which she covers with nesting material before spending the day with her mate and returning to roost in the evening. The male assists by feeding her, contributing up to a third of the food she needs. We watched her begging for food as a youngster might and being fed by her mate. Now we know that this help is much needed as each egg she lays will be approximately 10% of her weight so by the time her clutch is complete, it may weigh more than she does herself.
Incubation does not begin until the final egg has been laid. This explains why it seemed to us that incubation went on for so long. Chicks weigh about 1.5g on hatching and between 16-26g when they fledge. That’s a massive growth spurt! In a woodland setting, the parents can expect to deliver 10,000 caterpillars to their growing chicks. In gardens, there will be fewer caterpillars so the diet must vary and successful rearings are reduced. We are very rural with many oak trees close by. We watched as many caterpillars entered the box and as the days passed, the adults also took food from the feeders into the nest. To begin with the adults vanished entirely inside. As time went on their tails remained progressively visible. There was less room inside the box; the chicks were growing.
One day I realised why this might be the year that the box has been used. Until last summer our feeders have always been on the balcony. This spring we moved them down into the garden, leaving just two peanut feeders hanging one each end of the balcony. One hung just a foot away from the great tits’ box. As they continued to feed the youngsters, the parents began chasing off any small birds who attempted to use it. And what a commotion they made when the woodpeckers settled! Too small to frighten them off, the angry great tits kept up a racket so noisy that we found ourselves rushing out to chase away the woodpeckers on their behalf! It was then it came to me that maybe I could just remove that feeder… It worked; life was much less stressful for the parents.
One evening there was a fat, fluffy great tit wobbling on the balcony railings.
And the next morning the box was silent. They had gone.
But not entirely.
We are quite convinced that ‘our babies’ have returned several times along with their parents. The noise is unmistakable: several fledglings at a time fluttering their tiny wings and begging, whilst their devoted parent offers titbits. These photos are mine, taken through the glass with my usual lack of skill and patience. I’m rather proud of them!
The most recent visit was a day or so ago. One feeder is still on the balcony floor at the moment. (The balcony, from which the cats are banned, is quite a safe place for birds.) Three youngsters waited, begging loudly. The parent settled; had its fill and flew away. The youngsters stood silent and motionless. Forgive me for anthropomorphising, but I immediately thought of outraged teenagers. Seconds passed. Then one by one, they hopped onto the feeder themselves. Fledglings are independent of the parent after 8 days but parental feeding may continue for much longer. This parent clearly needed a break!
There is a good chance the pair will return to breed on the balcony again next year. I hope so.