Eurasian blue tit
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|Eurasian blue tit (male)|
|Eurasian blue tit range dark green, African blue tit range light green|
Eurasian blue tits, usually resident and non-migratory birds, are widespread and a common resident breeder throughout temperate and subarctic Europe and western Asia in deciduous or mixed woodlands with a high proportion of oak. They usually nest in tree holes, although they easily adapt to nest boxes where necessary. Their main rival for nests and in the search for food is the larger great tit.
The Eurasian blue tit prefers insects and spiders for its diet. Outside the breeding season, they also eat seeds and other vegetable-based foods. The birds are famed for their skill, as they can cling to the outermost branches and hang upside down when looking for food.
The Eurasian blue tit was described by Carl Linnaeus in 1758 in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae under the binomial name Parus caeruleus. Parus is the classical Latin for a tit and caeruleus is the Latin for dark blue or cerulean. Two centuries earlier, before the introduction of the binomial nomenclature, the same Latin name had been used by the Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner when he described and illustrated the blue tit in his Historiae animalium of 1555.
In 2005, analysis of the mtDNA cytochrome b sequences of the Paridae indicated that Cyanistes was an early offshoot from the lineage of other tits, and more accurately regarded as a genus rather than a subgenus of Parus. The current genus name, Cyanistes, is from the Ancient Greek kuanos, "dark blue". The African blue tit was formerly considered conspecific.
There are currently at least nine recognised subspecies:
- C. c. caeruleus (Linnaeus, 1758), the nominate subspecies, occurring in Continental Europe to northern Spain, Sicily, northern Turkey and northern Urals
- C. c. obscurus (Pražák, 1894), Ireland, Britain and Channel Islands
- C. c. ogliastrae (Hartert, 1905), Portugal, southern Spain, Corsica and Sardinia
- C. c. balearicus (von Jordans, 1913), Majorca Island (Balearic Islands)
- C. c. calamensis (Parrot, 1908), southern Greece, Pelopónnisos, Cyclades, Crete and Rhodes
- C. c. orientalis (Zarudny & Loudon, 1905), southern European Russia (Volga River to central and southern Urals)
- C. c. satunini (Zarudny, 1908), Crimean Peninsula, Caucasus, Transcaucasia and northwestern Iran to eastern Turkey
- C. c. raddei (Zarudny, 1908), northern Iran
- C. c. persicus (Blanford, 1873), Zagros Mountains
Pleske's tit (Cyanistes pleskei) is a common hybrid between this species and the azure tit in western Russia. The cap is usually darker than the azure tit, and the tail is paler than the Eurasian blue tit.
The Eurasian blue tit is usually 12 centimetres (4.7 in) long with a wingspan of 18 centimetres (7.1 in) for all genders, and weighs about 11 grams (0.39 oz). A typical Eurasian blue tit has an azure blue crown and dark blue line passing through the eye, and encircling the white cheeks to the chin, giving the bird a very distinctive appearance. The forehead and a bar on the wing are white. The nape, wings and tail are blue and the back is yellowish green. The underparts is mostly sulphur-yellow with a dark line down the abdomen - the yellowness is indicative of the number of yellowy-green caterpillars eaten, due to high levels of carotene pigments in the diet. The bill is black, the legs bluish grey, and the irides dark brown. The sexes are similar, but under ultraviolet light, males have a brighter blue crown. Young blue tits are noticeably more yellow.
Distribution and habitat
There are currently around 20–44 million pairs in Europe.
The Eurasian blue tit and the related hybrids are considered native species in areas of the European continent with a mainly temperate or Mediterranean climate, and in parts of the Middle East. These areas include Ireland, the United Kingdom and most of the European Union and EFTA (except Malta, where they are considered vagrant, and Iceland, where they are absent), plus: Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lebanon, Libya, the Republic of Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Morocco, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Vatican City and Ukraine.
Behaviour and ecology
Eurasian blue and great tits form mixed winter flocks, and the former are perhaps the better gymnasts in the slender twigs. A Eurasian blue tit will often ascend a trunk in short jerky hops, imitating a treecreeper. As a rule the bird roosts in ivy or evergreens, but in harsh winters will nest wherever there is a suitable small hole, be it in a tree or nesting box. They are very agile and can hang from almost anywhere.
This is a common and popular European garden bird, due to its perky acrobatic performances when feeding on nuts or suet. It swings beneath the holder, calling "tee, tee, tee" or a scolding "churr".
Eurasian blue tit will nest in any suitable hole in a tree, wall, or stump, or an artificial nest box, often competing with house sparrows or great tits for the site. Few birds more readily accept the shelter of a nesting box; the same hole is returned to year after year, and when one pair dies another takes possession. It is estimated by the RSPB that there are 3,535,000 breeding pairs in the UK.
Eggs are 14-18 mm long and 10.7-13.5 mm wide. Egg size appears to depend mostly on the size of individual females and secondarily on habitat, with smaller eggs found at higher altitudes. The clutch's total weight can be 1.5 times as heavy as the female bird.
The bird is a close sitter, hissing and biting at an intruding finger. In the South West of England such behaviour has earned the Eurasian blue tit the colloquial nickname "Little Billy Biter".[by whom?] When protecting its eggs it raises its crest, but this is a sign of excitement rather than anger, for it is also elevated during nuptial display. The nesting material is usually moss, wool, hair and feathers, and the eggs are laid in April or May. The number in the clutch is often very large, but seven or eight are normal, and bigger clutches are usually laid by two or even more hens. It is not unusual for a single bird to feed the chicks in the nest at a rate of one feed every ninety (90) seconds during the height of the breeding season. In winter they form flocks with other tit species.
In an analysis carried out using ring-recovery data in Britain, the survival rate for juveniles in their first year was 38 per cent, while the adult annual survival rate was 53 per cent. From these figures the typical lifespan is only three years. Within the Britain, the maximum recorded age is 10 years and 3 months for a bird that was ringed in Bedfordshire. The maximum age is 11 years and 7 months for a bird in the Czech Republic.
The Eurasian blue tit is a valuable destroyer of pests, though its sheet as a beneficial species is not entirely clean. It is fond of young buds of various trees, especially when insect preys are scarce, and may pull them to bits in the hope of finding insects. No species, however, destroys more coccids and aphids, the worst foes of many plants. It takes leaf miner grubs and green tortrix moths (Tortricidae). Seeds are eaten, as with all this family, and blue tits in British urban areas have evolved the ability to digest milk and cream.
Eurasian blue tits use songs and calls throughout the year. Songs are mostly used in late winter and spring to defend the territory or to attract mates. Calls are used for multiple reasons. Communication with other Eurasian blue tits is the most important motivation for the use of calls. They inform one another on their location in trees by means of contact-calls. They use alarm-calls to warn others (including birds of other species such as the great tit, the European robin or the treecreeper) about the presence of predators in the neighbourhood. Scolding for example is used when a ground predator (e.g. fox, cat or dog), a low flying predator or a perched owl are noticed. Sometimes this is followed by mobbing behaviour in which birds gather together in flocks to counter a predator. The alarm-whistle warns other birds about the proximity of a Eurasian sparrowhawk, a northern goshawk, a common buzzard or other flying predators that form a potential danger in the air. A series of high-pitched 'zeedling' notes are given by both partners before and during copulation. The begging-call is used by juveniles to beg for food from parents.
Eurasian blue tits are able to culturally transmit learning to other tit species. An example of this, dating from the 1920s, is the ability to open milk bottles with foil tops, to get at the cream underneath. Such behaviour has been suppressed recently by the gradual change of human dietary habits (low-fat or skimmed milk instead of full-fat), and the way of getting them (from a supermarket in plastic containers with hard plastic lids), instead of the milkman.
Predators and natural threats
The small size of the Eurasian blue tit makes it vulnerable to prey by larger birds such as jays who catch the vulnerable fledglings when leaving the nest. The most important predator is probably the sparrowhawk, closely followed by the domestic cat. Nests may be robbed by mammals such as weasels and red squirrels, as well as introduced grey squirrels in the UK.
The successful breeding of chicks is dependent on sufficient supply of green caterpillars as well as satisfactory weather. Breeding seasons may be affected badly if the weather is cold and wet between May and July, particularly if this coincides with the emergence of the caterpillars on which the nestlings are fed.
Eurasian blue tits are known to be host to feather mites, and rarely lice and flat flies. In Europe the only feather mite species known to live on the blue tit host is Proctophyllodes stylifer. P. stylifer however seems to be of no concern to the bird as, until now, it is only known to feed on dead feather tissue. P. stylifer lives all its developmental stages, i.e. egg, larva, protonymph, tritonymph and adult, within the plumage of the same host. The usual sites where P. stylifer is encountered are the remiges and the rectrices of the bird where they can be found tandemly positioned between the barbs of the rachis.
Status and conservation
The Eurasian blue tit is classified as a least concern species on the IUCN Red List (version 3.1), and as a Green Status species, since 1996, by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom.
Relationship with humans
The Eurasian blue tit has appeared in many stamps and ornaments. For example, the 2010 Birds of Britain series is the most recent appearance of the bird on a British stamp.
Blue tits have learned a number of behaviours that help them to thrive in human-dominated areas. In the days of milk float deliveries, the birds were able to peck through the lids of milk bottles to get the cream underneath. In addition, the instinct to strip bark from trees in search of insects has developed into a tendency to peel building materials such as thatch, wallpaper, stucco and window putty.
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