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Part 14 - The Blue tit and the Skylark
Blue tit - Parus caeruleus

A line drawing of the Blue tit   A photo of a Blue tit taken in April 2008 by Rhys Haden   A photo of a Blue tit taken in April 2008 by Rhys Haden

Blue tits are one of several woodland species that have adapted to gardens – essentially open woodlands, from a bird’s perspective – very successfully. They are more plentiful in mature gardens, favouring the oak trees that provide a rich source of the invertebrate food so vital to young birds. The Garden BirdWatch survey of the British Trust for Ornithology shows that blue tits are recorded each week in 90% of all the gardens whose owners participate in the scheme and there are reckoned to be some 2.5 million pairs in the UK. Those who don’t spray poisons on their rose bushes can be rewarded by the sight of blue tits picking off aphids but fat caterpillars, usually of moths, are far more nutritious and a much preferred food. Blue tits produce huge numbers of eggs. Between seven and 13 is typical but clutches of 16 are not that uncommon. Few of these birds survive into adulthood. Many fail even to fledge (so do check your nestboxes at the end of the breeding season – early July for blue tits - for dead chicks) and the life expectancy of those that do is very short, with many juveniles becoming, in turn, food for young sparrowhawks.

If you have a bird table, you may - reasonably enough - have assumed that the handful of blue tits visiting at any one time are the same individuals that were there yesterday and that will be there the next day. In fact, ringing studies have shown that some feeding stations can attract as many as 200 different blue tits in a 24-hour period. Figures are much higher in the winter when blue tits move around in search of food.

Blue tits achieved a kind of notoriety in 1957 when they were first recorded pecking through the tops of milk bottles to get at the cream. Great tits later learned to do this too, perhaps after observing their cousins. With less milk being delivered to doorsteps these days and what there is being not as creamy, this behaviour is now less frequently seen.

Skylark – Alauda arvensis

A line drawing of the Skylark A line drawing of the Skylark

Agricultural intensification has led to a dramatic decline in skylark numbers in Britain, with a reduction of as much as 50% over the last 25 years overall. Even so, this is still one of the most widespread species of bird, being found nesting in virtually all open habitats, including “brownfield” sites in inner cities. You certainly don’t have to go far in Kingston to find skylarks. Their superb song can be heard as early as January - on a fine day - and some will still be singing late into the summer, although less frequently and not at such great length. At their peak, skylarks can keep their song going for as much as five minutes, which means of course singing while exhaling and inhaling – something not to be tried at home! Here, they favour the shorter grass at the top of the Downs, avoiding the slopes of Kingston Hill which are now, sadly, despite being regularly grazed, becoming slowly smothered by the thick and course tor-grass or Brachypodium pinnatum.

Being ground-nesting, larks are very vulnerable to predation and to disturbance. The simple, cup-shaped nest is lined with grass and must be well-concealed. The young are ready to leave as quickly as nine days after hatching. Skylarks often have two broods in a year and occasionally three. Out of the breeding season they flock, sometimes in large numbers and may be found locally throughout the year.

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