British Wildlife of the Week:

Bearded Tit

A male bearded tit (or bearded reedling)
Image Source: Airwolfhound

An animal’s name can often give you important information about the species in question – where it can be found in the wild, what distinguishing features it might have and/or what family or genus it belongs to. The Himalayan red-flanked bush-robin, for example, provides all of that aforementioned information. Most animal names, admittedly, aren’t quite so comprehensive, and there are some that are unhelpful, misleading or – in the case of the mountain chicken, which is actually a large species of frog – seemingly downright deceptive. Today’s British Wildlife of the Week is the bearded tit, whose name is doubly incorrect, for it is neither bearded nor a tit.

First of all, let’s look at that so-called beard. If anything, it’s more of a flamboyant moustache drooping down on either side of the bird’s short, stubby beak, reminiscent of those worn by stereotypical Chinese mandarins.

Moving on to the bird’s family relations, things become less straightforward. If it’s not a tit, then what is it? This is a question that has puzzled biologists for years, and even today its evolutionary origins remain largely a mystery. This bird was indeed once thought to be a tit (hence its name), but it was later placed in the parrotbill family, a group of similar-looking birds found in Africa and Asia. Later still, it was thought to be more closely related to the larks or babblers, although the most recent research suggests it is a unique songbird, closely related to no other living species. The alternative name of ‘bearded reedling’ is therefore often used by ornithologists to avoid confusion, although ‘moustached reedling’ would be better – and even then it makes it sound as though the bird is somehow a baby reed.

Semantics aside, though, the bearded tit is undeniably a very handsome bird. The male, with his ochre-coloured body, greyish head and smart, ink-black drooping ‘moustache’, looks almost exotic. Females lack the moustache and are slightly duller. But both sexes have long tails that help them balance as they perch on reed stems.

In fact, the bearded tit is a reedbed specialist; it is the only British songbird to stay in them all year round. Sadly, reedbeds are one of the UK’s rarest habitats. Years of land drainage to create farmland has seen them decrease massively, and the bearded tit is now a scarce bird, with fewer than 650 British breeding pairs.

Bearded tits are able to survive in reedbeds all year because they change their diet from insects during the spring and summer to seeds in the autumn and winter.
Image Source: Pixabay

Dry, still, sunny October mornings provide some of the best chances to see these retiring reedbed residents. With breeding now complete, families become less secretive and flock together more. As they change their diet during autumn, switching from insects to reed seeds, they go through the process of developing a new stomach lining. To aid digestion, they take in grit – often from grit trays installed by reserve wardens. Growing up in the northwest of England, I sometimes visited the RSPB Leighton Moss nature reserve in Lancashire (home to the largest reedbed in the region) in early autumn. The trays there were placed quite close to the paths, usually providing great (and almost guaranteed) views of these wonderful little birds as they flitted out from the long reed stems to collect grit.

In the next British Wildlife of the Week, to coincide with Halloween, we’ll be looking at an ancient blood-sucking fish – the lamprey.

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  1. Pingback: British Wildlife of the Week: Yellow-Tailed Scorpion - The Nature Nook

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