GREAT TIT (Parus major)

Mésange charbonnière

 

The Great Tit is one of our commonest birds. Originally it is a woodland species, and is still found at its greatest density there, especially in beech woods. However it has adapated well to all kinds of man-made habitats and is common in gardens and farmland throughout the year. But it is primarily a bird of the trees, scientists have shown that the availbility of beech seeds during the winter can determine the number which survive to breed the next spring. This dependency on winter food, and its ability to switch between an insect diet whilst breeding, to a seed diet in winter, makes the Great Tit one of the commonest visitors to feeding tables and pea-nut bags.

With its white face patch breaking up a basically black head, and the yellow breast with a thick black stripe down it, it is easily identified.

COMMUNICATING THE RIGHT MESSAGE

The basic territorial song of the Great Tit is a ringing, two-note, rhythmic call "teacher - teacher - teacher":

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A simple sonogram of this basic song shows clearly the two notes sung about every half-second, the first higher note, slightly downward inflected between 4.5-5 KHz, and the lower second note with a broader range of frequencies between 3.5 and 4.5 KHz. This can easily be seen in the sonogram of the first part of the song above:

However the Great Tit has a great variation in its song and can fool many an experienced birdwatcher. Most commonly it can reverse the two notes and sing the lower one first like this:

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In this next variation the two basic notes are still sung, but slightly more rapidly than we heard before, and are now interspersed by two rapid "grace" notes of a higher frequency than we have heard so far:

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In this next variation the song takes on an almost ventroloquial quality by the complex introduction of two lower notes. It starts at a high frequency - nearly 8KHz, then goes via one step down to the "normal" 3.5KHz, before going through a quick 4.5 KHz step back up to 8KHz again, the whole thing sounds like a finger snap:

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No wonder the poor birders get confused !! But here is a hint on listening to bird songs, each species has a a certain "tenor" or "timbre" to the way it sings, so even if the pattern of notes is different you can still make an accurate guess as to the species. The variations I give here all still have the same "feel" about them that tells you it is a Great Tit.

SAVING THEIR SKIN !

That ventriloquial quality which can be heard in variation 2 above is often a feature of the noises birds make if they are alarmed by a predator. They give warning notes to others of the same species ("look out there's a killer about") without wanting to give away their own location - otherwise the guard may become the victim ! If you listen carefully to the full sound file of Var 2 above, after about the fourth call you can hear another Great Tit in the background making a "churring" noise. This too is a sure sign these birds were alarmed at something, Great Tits can be heard doing this if there is a cat, or a stoat or an owl or other hunters around. Here is a clearer recording of this annoyance call:

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Notice that in the first two deliveries of this alarm call the "churring" noise is preceded by a high-pitched squeak, if you look at the sonogram you can see it is again at about 7KHz - reminiscent of the previous variation. Also from the sonogram you can see that the "churring" is actually a series of rapid-fire notes (less than one-tenth of second between them) of a very broad range of frequencies - starting at slightly less than 2 KHZ and extending to beyond 13 KHz. This broad spectrum of sound is another feature of bird alarm calls that makes them very difficult to locate by predators but are easily heard by their neighbours - a sort of avian form of spamming ! (The othe wavy lines in the sonogram, between the churrs, is a Blackbird singing away, unconcerned by whatever was upsetting the Great Tit).

So you can begin to realise that this friendly little guy on the peanut feeder actually has quite a complex life and great ways to communicate !

 

 

 

 

 

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