Blue, Coal, Great, Marsh, Willow, Crested, Long-tailed, and Bearded – Britain’s titmice are among the most familiar, colourful and well-loved of all the country’s birds. Who doesn’t love to watch Blue Tits performing acrobatics on the feeders? Or watch the lollipop-shapes of Long-tailed Tits bouncing along a hedgerow in winter? These bright, perky birds stand out as having a special place in the nation’s heart, they are a part of our culture and natural identity, not least because of all the rude jokes. But what defines a Tit?

This isn’t as simple a question as you might think, there is more than one way to define what a Tit is. The most simple, and probably most common, way of defining one is by its name – if it has ‘Tit’ in its name, then it must be a Tit, end of story. But then a jellyfish isn’t really a fish, nor is it made out of jelly – some things just aren’t named very well. The same goes for our Tits; our ancestors who did all the naming of things were pretty lax with names and stuck the word ‘Tit’ onto any bird that was small and perky, regardless of actual relatedness.

So, let’s look at it from a genetic perspective. All the British Tits, bar the Long-tailed and Bearded, are categorised within the family Paridae. Once, in a simpler time, they were all also within the genus (the grouping below family) Parus, but things have changed. Only the Great Tit is now named under Parus, with Coal Tit now in the genus Periparus, Marsh and Willow Tit in the genus Poecile, Blue Tit is in the genus Cyanistes and the Crested Tit is in Lophophanes. Then there are the oddities.

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Bearded Tit, or Reedling, was lumped with the group because of its superficial similarity – it is after all a small, perky bird with colourful plumage and is good at acrobatics. But it has since been found through genetics that this beautiful bird is all on its own – it does not seem to be closely related to any other living bird on Earth and has consequently been given its own family ‘Panuridae’. The Long-tailed Tit is also odd, being the only European representative of the genus Aegithalos, which isn’t very closely related to the other Tits at all.

So, you could say a Tit is any bird in the family Paridae; meaning that Bearded, Long-tailed and Penduline (which isn’t really British but turns up fairly often so I thought I’d mention it) cannot be classed as Tits in the strict sense. But that’s all rather complicated for the average granny watching Coal Tits on her peanuts, is there a simpler definition? How about appearance?

Whilst all Tits are very similar in terms of general shape and size, they differ markedly in their plumage patterns and colours. Only Marsh and Willow Tits look alike; Great Tits have a black and white head with a yellow belly and green back, Blue Tits have a different head pattern with more blue and white, Coal Tits are mostly grey and white, Crested Tits have a stripy crest, Long-tailed Tits are pink, white and black with a ridiculous tail and Bearded Tits look like nothing else on the planet.

So would ‘a small bird with some black and some white, with other random colours’ be an adequate definition of a Tit? It’s true that most Tit species have a similar habitat-type; woodland, but so many other birds also live in woodland that it can hardly be used to define them alone. Their songs and calls aren’t much help either, as most small birds have high-pitched, repetitive sounds in their repertoire.

Intelligence is one thing that does connect the Tit family; next to Crows and Parrots, Tits are actually some of the most intelligent bird species in the world, they are excellent problem-solvers. This has perhaps contributed to their perceived ‘charm’ – as they poke about our houses and gardens, swinging from twigs and hiding seeds in crevices for later, we perhaps see something human in them which we react positively to. In fact, the way that we humans see them could be one way of defining a Tit.

They, especially Great and Blue Tits, are often described with words like ‘cheeky’, ‘curious’, ‘feisty’, ‘argumentative’, ‘perky’ and ‘characterful’. They can all seem to have their own personalities: Great Tits are bold, loud, aggressive and clever; Blue Tits are curious, cheeky, charming and are certainly not push-overs; Coal Tits are timid, wary, largely quiet but very active and perky; Marsh Tits can be bold and loud but prefer to keep themselves to themselves much of the time and Long-tailed Tits are highly social, chatterers and gossipers, nomads, very tame, always hungry and always fidgeting.

The fact that pretty much all of the ‘Tit’ species visit bird-feeders in peoples gardens makes them very important as poster-boys for nature in general, they are the most common link between the general public and the natural world and can act as a barometer-of-sorts for testing the health of this relationship. If we don’t care about the colourful characters that are Tits, which most of us see every day, then what chance does the rest of nature have? Fortunately, I think most of us do care – so however you define a Tit, why not help to protect them and other species for the future.

 

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