Great Tit

The largest and boldest of the common tit species, the Great Tit is an acrobatic and common garden visitor, famous for its incredible repertoire of calls and songs.

Scientific name: Parus major

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I hear the Great Tit singing
With it’s repetitious trill
And from the songs beginning
It went on with fluent skill
I listened quite intently
To determine where it sat
For the sound was almost friendly
And I’d like to tip my hat
Whilst sitting in the garden
I felt that I should say
‘Great Tit, I beg your pardon
You have really made my day’

Great Tit Singing, by Phil Soar
Great Tits © Paul Dinning

Where do Great Tits live?

NBN Atlas
Great Tit in the UK (NBN Atlas)
Great Tit
Great Tit, Crossley ID Guide: Britain and Ireland © Richard Crossley

Originally a woodland bird, Great Tits are commonly also found in parks and gardens and almost any areas with similar vegetation. They occur across most of the UK except some northern and western Scottish islands. Further afield, you can find Great Tits eastwards throughout central Asia and southern Russia, and in northwest Africa. Further still, they are replaced by the very closely related species Japanese Tit in east Asia, and Cinereous Tit in south Asia.

In the UK, Great Tits do not move far from their local area. In part this is because of their reliance on garden feeding rather than more erratic, natural food sources. Continental birds may migrate more regularly, especially in years of poor beech crop, one of their favoured autumn and winter foods.

What food do Great Tits eat?

Great Tit on peanut feeder
Great Tit on peanut feeder © Trudy Harper

A regular visitor to bird tables and feeders, Great Tits are especially fond of peanuts but will eat almost any bird food that is provided. They will also feed more from the ground than other tits. This is not surprising considering that one of their favoured natural foods in winter is the fallen seed crop of beech trees.

They are active feeders, hunting in trees for insects and spiders amongst smaller branches and leaves, and crevices in the bark. This makes them a welcome visitor to the garden as they will also help rid it of aphids and other ‘pests’, caterpillars in particular being what they prefer to feed their young.

Where do Great Tits nest?

Great Tits are cavity nesters, with small holes in tree trunks the main natural nesting site, but they will readily use nest boxes.

Many other man-made structures attract Great Tits to nest, such as walls, pipes, letter boxes and air ducts.

Adult Great Tit feeding chick
Adult Great Tit feeding chick © Michel Somsen

The Great Tit nesting behaviour is very similar to that of the Blue Tit, although their clutches are smaller with typically between 7 and 9 eggs.

What do Great Tits look like?

Male Great Tit
Male Great Tit © Monika
Female Great Tit
Female Great Tit © Amy Felce

Larger than the similarly common Blue Tit, the Great Tit is mostly green and yellow with large white cheeks on its black head.

The bold black stripe on its underparts is the best way to tell apart males and females: the male’s stripe is broader, especially on the belly, and the female’s does not reach as far as the legs.

When it flies away, the black tail with white outer tail feathers is obvious.

What do baby Great Tits look like?

Great Tit
Juvenile Great Tit © Hédi Benyounes

Young Great Tits are a duller and yellower version of the adult, without the bold black stripe on the underparts.

What do Great Tits sound like?

Great Tits have an amazing and varied repertoire of calls, and sometimes mimic other species. In Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book, he mentions that ‘if you hear a call and you don’t recognise it – it’s a Great Tit’!

Great Tit song © Alexander Henderson

The most common song is an easily recognisable ‘tee-cher… tee-cher… tee-cher…’, its repeated and rhythmic nature earning the old name ‘saw-sharpener’.

Dozens of different call variations have been noted, with single birds having multiple song types as well. It is thought that this gives the impression to intruders in their territory that there are multiple birds already present and they should move on to compete on easier grounds!

Great Tit call © Dominic Garcia-Hall

One of the most common calls is a nasal scolding ‘chh-chh-chh’.

How to attract Great Tits?

Peanuts and sunflower seeds are two of the best foods for Great Tits, especially in winter. They will eat just about any food you put out though, from hanging feeders, bird tables and the ground.

Great Tit at nest box
Great Tit at nest box © Andy Ballard

As always, do not forget to supply fresh water for drinking, and bathing.

You can also provide a nest box with a round entrance hole, which should be a little larger than that for Blue Tits.

If you have pets at home you could leave moulted hair out in the garden and Great Tits may well use it to line their nests!

More facts about Great Tits

Great Tit beaks are getting longer!

Did you know that Great Tits in the UK have longer beaks than their relations on the Continent? Researchers believe that Great Tits have rapidly evolved longer beaks to more effectively take food from bird feeders. They have been able to detect genetic differences linked to beak length between birds in the UK compared to those in the Netherlands. Long-term studies have shown that average beak length in the UK has increased in just the last 40 years or so. Those birds with longer beaks were more frequent visitors to garden bird feeders compared to those that spent more time in woodland.

However, interestingly Great Tit’s beaks change shape seasonally to deal with changes in their natural food source. Their bills are shorter and hence stronger during the autumn and winter when seed is their natural food of choice but, in the spring when feeding more on caterpillars, the bills become longer.

Aggressive behaviour of Great Tits

As the largest of the tits, Great Tits can be aggressive and dominant at the bird table, but this aggression goes a lot further. There are numerous instances of them killing other birds, even smashing their skulls and eating their brains! These include picking on exhausted migrating Goldcrests, killing Pied Flycatchers to evict them from nest boxes, and killing Redpolls and Yellowhammers at a feeding site in Finland (article in Finnish, with gruesome photos!)

Animals aren’t safe either. In Hungary in winter, when food is scarce, Great Tits regularly enter a cave to kill and feed on hibernating pipistrelle bats!

However, Great Tits don’t always get it their own way, as one pitcher plant will attest!

Intelligence

Great Tits have been known to use conifer needles as tools to extract insect larvae from crevices in tree bark. Their ingenuity has been further shown in experiments where peanuts were suspended from strings. Most species tried to reach these in flight, however, some individual Great Tits (as well as some Marsh Tits and Blue Tits individuals) learnt to perch on the branch and pull the nut to them. They would gradually pull the string up with their beaks, stepping on it with one foot to hold it as they did. This is not dissimilar to how they deal with more natural large food, such as beech mast and acorns and even caterpillars: holding them with their feet whilst they peck at them with their beak.

They are also able to learn from watching each other. Researchers from the Department of Zoology of the University of Cambridge found that birds that watched other birds attempting to eat disgusting food would then avoid that food without first needing to try it for themselves.

Yuck! How birds share knowledge of disgusting foods—and help insects evolve © Science Magazine

Do you know any good Great Tit facts?

Let us know in the comments below.

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