TITS, SPECKS OF COLOUR AND LIFE IN WINTER TROMSØ
What the Americans call chickadees, after the song pattern of the most
common species, are here in Europe Tits, an abbreviation of Titmouse, in
English, and mees (meis, Meise, mésange) in most other European
languages----the second part of Titmouse is probably the same stem, and the
name has therefore nothing to do with mice! Most tits belong to the family
Paridae, and in Europe we still keep all local species in the large genus
Parus, which the Americans recently have split into a number of smaller
genera. One species, our Long-tailed Tit, belongs---with i.a. the American
Bushtit--, in the related family Aegithalidae; these birds make i.a. their
own beautiful ball-like nests, while the parids nest in hollows, either
self-made, 'borrowed' or man-made.
In a place like my native Holland there are many different tit-species
both in the forest, and on the feeding-tables, but here in the north there
are only a few, and it may be of interest to present those for you. The
most common and conspicuous species here in Tromsø town, as most places in
Europe, is the Great Tit Parus major, as the name says, the biggest of them
all. It is also one of the more colourful, with its dark blue head and
'tie' (vertical breast-stripe, broader in the males than in the females and
young) and clear yellow underparts. This situation is something that is
fairly recent. Great Tits are in reality not all that suitable to our
climate with its long dark cold winters; in contradistinction to the
'black-and-white' species, they do not hoard food for winter-use in summer
and autumn. But nowadays that is no longer a major problem, as in towns and
villages people feed the birds all winter (or even all year), and also
kindly hang out nest-boxes. Therefore the Great Tit has during the last
50-60 years gradually been able to conquer all the populated parts of
Northern Norway. It has a very serious competitor for the nest-boxes,
however, in the Pied Flycatcher, another newcomer to Arctic Norway; the
tits are in the area all year, and occupy boxes in spring, but end May the
flycatchers return from their long migration, and pitched battles often
ensue, with the flycatchers the winners more often than not. Last year Ole
Post has given a wonderful portrait of the Great Tit from Denmark, and I
won't say more about them here'
There is another colourful, non-hoarding tit in Europe, which shares
people's attention and admiration most places in Europe. This is the Blue
Tit Parus caeruleus, smaller and much lighter blue than the Great Tit and
without the tie-stripe, but also yellow beneath. Blue Tits are very feisty
indeed, and in spite of their much smaller size they almost hold their own
on the feeding tables against the larger species. Here in N.Norway the Blue
Tit traditionally did not occur: 'too far north', we always explained this
airily, as if that really means something. During the last decade, however,
the Blue Tit gradually, but inexorably, seems to push north. It is now
quite regular in the Balsfjord just 70 km south of Tromsø, and even in a
south-exposed area some 30 km's south of the town, and it is being observed
in town every year, and has already nested there. Blue Tits are completely
dependent here on winter feeding and nest boxes, but both conditions are
presently fulfilled, and I expect the Blue Tits to gradually become a
common bird also here at almost 70*N.
Our real indigenous tit-species up here, a bird that would maybe almost
common if the are was uninhabited by people, is the Willow Tit Parus
montanus, a close relative of your Black-capped and Carolina Chickadees. It
is the same size as the Blue Tit, 11 1/2 cm against the Great Tit's 14 cm,
but 'black-and-white' instead of technicolor: black cap, dazzling white
cheeks (much whiter than in western Europe, where there is a different
subspecies), and usually with a light panel on the greyish-brownish wings.
It makes a quite robust and combative impression (a little belied by the
fact that most other tits dominate it at the feeders in S.Norway), and this
comes maybe partly by the prevalent call note, a scolding ' tææ tææ tææ'
(the æ's as in weather), which often betrays the bird in the dense vegetation.
Willow tits are great hoarders, as are most of the black-and-white tits,
and our great expert on these birds here in Norway, prof. Svein Haftorn,
has calculated that each bird may hoard as many as 60 000 items during
summer and autumn ; in the case of this species they are hidden---usually
one seed , spider or caterpillar at the time--- among the larger branches
of the trees (while e.g. Siberian Tit, Crested Tit and Coal Tit prefer the
outermost branches and the Tree Creepers mainly stay on the stem and
largest branches (Nevertheless, Tree Creepers rob many tit caches during
the winter half year).
Willow tits come frequently to feeders, and in my garden feistily hammer
the sunflower seeds they have extracted from the hanging feeder, on nearby
branches. Also in nature it has been shown that their diet in winter
includes many more seeds than in summer, when the birds are almost
exclusively insectivorous; many of the seeds are from herbs, and must
therefore have been cached in the trees during autumn, as these herbs
generally are inaccessible in winter because of snow.
In summer Willow Tits prefer to make their own nest-burrows in soft
and willow trees, rather than utilizing nest-boxes. Also in this respect
the species is much more independent of man than the colourful tit species.
Their song phrases, a high, clear, monotonous 'tyuu tyuu tyuu' are quite
different from the song of the other local tits. In addition the Willow
Tits sing, all year round, now and then a hurried little clear warble, the
function of which is not quite clear to me, and which is generally omitted
in most field guides. I know of no equivalent of this in other tit species;
it may be some kind of a 'don't come too close' signal.
The large fluffy Siberian Tit Parus cinctus, which American birders go
large effort and expense to find in Alaska, is so definitely also very well
adapted to an Arctic climate. It is, however, primarily a bird of the taiga
forests of the far north, and therefore here north an inland bird with an
easterly distribution. I have seen them only twice here on the island of
Tromsøya., always in winter. They sound a little like a Willow Tit with a
throat infection, and are easily recognized large brown-capped tits which
look a little as if the pattern has 'run' a little in too hot washing; it
is much less crisp and clear than e.g. in Willow Tits..
More common in the pine forests of inland Troms is the smallest tit
species of them all, the pine-loving Coal Tit Parus ater, easily recognized
by its black head and white neck spot. Usually we don't see this species
here either, but it is much more nomadic than many of the others, and some
years there are small or large invasions of Coal Tits here near the coast.
After one of these large invasions, some 15 years ago, a small group of
Coal Tits occupied the fir plantations here in Folkeparken, my local patch,
and the birds nested there for some 5 years, albeit in steadily diminishing
numbers. Now they are gone again.
But this winter we have a large invasion of Long-tailed tits Aegithalos
caudatus, and flocks of 20-50 of these endearing whitish miniature magpies
are regularly to be seen even in my garden, although they are absolutely
uninterested in my feeder, and comb through the trees and bushes at high
speed, 'as if they had a train to catch'. I know of no studies of the
winter food of Long-tailed Tits, nor of what governs their irregular
invasions----'stjertmeis-vintere' (years with large invasions of
Long-tailed Tits) may be more then 10 years apart, and in the years in
between one rarely sees these birds at all.
The last two Norwegian tits, finally, Marsh Tit Parus palustris and
Crested Tit P. cristatus, do not occur so far north as yet. especially the
latter species is very sedentary, more so than most tits.
I had to write a small piece on Willow Tits for an exhibition here at
museum, and have used the opportunity to broadcast a broader picture of
this fascinating, always active and curious bird family, without which our
winter forests would be ever so much more dull and silent. But maybe this
is only of local interest?
PS My year list has climbed to 13 species!!
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