“I’m walking to my car thinking of when a bird-bander told me what happens if you mist-net long-tailed tits. Because they forage in family flocks, these mouse-sized birds get trapped in mist-nets all at once. Freed one by one from the mesh they’re hung in individual bags from hooks in the ringing shed, ready to be weighed and measure and ringed. And in that awful solitude they call to one another ceaselessly, urgently, reassuring each other that they are still together, all one thing. And once the rings are closed about their legs they’re released, all together, to resume their lives, carrying their tiny numbers with them as they fly.”
This is a passage from Helen Macdonald’s latest book, which is a collection of essays called “Vesper Flights”. It’s a fascinating medley of oddities, and has moved her yet further up the list of people in the public eye I would love to meet. She had me with “H is for Hawk”, her re-telling and re-living of TH White’s “The Goshawk”, a book I had devoured in my youth. Her writing is heady mix of erudite vocabulary, lyrical description and ferociously personal emotion.
During these two dreary months of winter lockdown, I’ve been partly kept sane by my garden feeder project. One of the delights has been the visits by Long Tailed Tits, as I described in “Embracing the Familiar”:
Current population: 120 thousand pairs
A recent addition to the feeder crew, this is the only one that always comes mob handed. Of course in the spring they split into nesting pairs, but I’ve yet to see a solo bird in the winter. Our gang seems to be 11 strong.
Since then I’ve taken more pictures and been delighted by how trusting they are. You can easily walk to within a couple of metres before they stop feeding and unhurriedly flit to the nearest bush. I have occasionally since seen a solo bird, but I think what makes them so special to us is the combination of dainty beauty, small size, and the expression, when seen up close, of an adorable baby about to lose its temper. Most inspiring though is their sheer friendliness. Unlike most of the other garden birds they never seem to fight amongst themselves, and never push themselves forwards at the feeders. They wait for their chance and then all pile in together, taking up every available surface and for a few minutes baffling the other birds.
With just three gaps I kept records over a 20 day period in January from the 11th to the 31st. There were just two sightings of LTTs, one of 10 and the other of 11 together. Although I have seen them at the feeders more often this month, with so far only two days missed, I have just 4 records, two of which were for a solo bird. The other two were each of 8, but there are various complicating factors. When they are on passage, moving from one tree to another or from bushes to the feeders, they are very hard to count. They love the fat ball feeders and if the column is full they can all crowd in and feed together, but if it, or the peanut feeder, is only half full, only some of them can feed and the rest mill around.
The whole business of counting wildlife is a big topic which could have as its motto “Keep still can’t you?”. Having frequently tested my intuitive counts against photographs I’m now fairly confident about my guesses, and my estimate is that this family group is 12 strong and that it moves in what seems like a random way through the trees and hedges and from one garden to another throughout the day. As for the solo bird – an old lion cast out of the pride? a scout? a rugged individualist? There is so much to learn.