Saturday 25 January 2020

Country Matters: Tomtit raiders get the cream

Tough guy: Little Blue tits are very territorial
Tough guy: Little Blue tits are very territorial

Joe Kennedy

There are times when I feel blessed by birds that seem to be unaware I am not on a casual route in a garden or park or quite close, as is a robin's wont watching soil in a footfall.

'Flu imprisoned me to see the days change through window glass and one morning there was a handful of blue tits busy searching among old rose bush leaves and scouring a battered bird table with goldfinches and a cock blackbird and a sole woodpigeon hoping for anything that might be left. Then, quickly, they were gone to another port of call.

The blue tits were back with a spring-like vigour and I remembered how one bird's territorial urge in the past was almost its undoing as it smashed into its challenging reflection on an expanse of glass. It was picked up and it eventually recovered after some warmth in a poly tunnel.

Blue tits are tough little creatures that barrel along, universally popular garden-feeder visitors and their willingness to make homes in substitute nest sites such as small wood boxes adds to their popularity. They are notably aggressive and I have read where bird-ringers with nature charities have testified to the blue tits' penchant for nipping and biting.

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Parus caeruleus once had the personalised nickname of Tomtit although these days this appears to have fallen out of use. Up to about 50 years ago it was called a Titmouse, meaning a small creature, the name going back to the 14th Century, as much as pipits were described as Titlarks. Its name in Irish is meanntain gorm,

With its voracious appetite for caterpillars, the little bird is the gardener's great friend and its breeding cycle is geared to coincide with the maximum abundance of these creatures which are its staple food. It is a great survivor in severe weather and can make regular appearances when other birds shelter in dense cover.

The little bird's great claim to fame was in the century past when it discovered the taste of cream and learned to prise off the card tops and later pick holes in foil tops of milk bottles delivered to doorsteps. I remember these deliveries via electric vehicles sneaking through the dawn streets. 'No bottles, no milk' was the milkman's cry - but there are no bottles these days except mini versions in some trendy cafes.

I have read that the first recorded bottle raid by tits occurred in Southampton in the 1920s. Years later and well into the 1950s the practice had become widespread in UK cities and had crossed the Irish Sea. Sparrows, blackbirds and magpies copied the tits.

Milk in those days had thick heads of cream in the bottles. It was digestible and full of energy, but when lighter milk became widespread the bottle-raiding stopped - the birds lacked the necessary enzymes to digest lactose. Milk comes in cartons or plastic containers these days, and is rarely delivered except by arrangement. Bring back glass, I say - and also those electric delivery vehicles, driven or hand-guided, silently criss-crossing suburban streets at dawn, which used to greet newspaper reporters on their way home from 'night-town' shifts in far-off times.

Sunday Independent

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