The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Seasons.

Edited by Miss Armitt.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 772

"Knowledge never learned of schools."

Birds of Lakeland: The Blue Titmouse--Parus Coeruleus

Very lovely in plumage is the Blue Titmouse. China-blue are the tints of its wings, tail and head; delicate yellows show on its breast and underparts; and it carries bold strap-markings on cheek and throat. A cheerful little acrobat it is, too, performing on the trees of wood-side and garden for its food-getting, all through the leafless winter-time, when birds are scarce. It disdains not, either, to take bounty of our hands, nor to add its lively, pretty presence to the feathered group at the window.

Lovely, yet hardly lovable, it seems! No traditional story or song enshrines the love of the people for it in the past, and it appears to be a particular favourite with no one. Self-contained, pugnacious, and (it is reported) even cruel in temper, it can hold its own amongst birds of larger size than itself (even if they be of the bold Parus family); and this temper, perhaps, it is that has earned it the local masculine name of tom-tit or tom-tee. Never by timidity does it appeal to man's pity, nor does it gain his heart by a well-placed confidence. It never regards him with that bright-eyed, observant gaze that convinces one the Robin might (in time!) become a personal friend, or suspect that the wise-looking little Wren (though it never condescends to our bounty) really knows a great deal about our affairs. Indeed, I think, though the impression may be unscientific, that a bird's mode of glance, or interchange of look with man, affects largely his feelings towards it.

Possibly the Blue-tit's eye suffers in effect, not only from the gay facial markings that cross it (and I have noticed how much larger and brighter than her mate's does the hen Redstart's eye look, because it is set in sombre feathers, but because it does not rear its head for a bird-like look around. It is, in fact, like a feathered mouse, and its neckless head twists in pivot-fashion round. Its feet, too, seem better designed for hanging on by, than standing upright upon. Indeed, so great is its habit of clasping by claw, that it deals with any object of food presented to it in this fashion, even seizing a tiny canary-seed with both feet, the while--wedging the edge of its blue tail against the ground for support--it stabs the seed with its beak.

Its natural life, however, is spent in trees, for which it is physically adapted. Through the winter it explores the bark of these with the utmost industry. Insect life, in all stages, egg, larva, pupa, imago, are evidently acceptable to it, as well as the lowlier forms of vegetable life, and I have found it picking with eagerness the bark of a dead bough, beneath which was to be discerned a thin white layer of fungoid growth. Also, in the very early spring, when the oak-buds begin to swell beneath their hard sheaths, it will hang to the tip of the bough, piercing and plucking to the heart of the buds, only, I fear, for the soft green centre within. But, shortly after, when the spread of the leaves begin, there is plenty of insect food for its getting, whereby it helps instead of hinders the tree's growth. Soft-bodied creatures without end are born from the myriad eggs of the moths that have lain dormant through winter, and the Blue Titmouse gobbles with joy these fast fattening and growing grubs. Now is the time, when food is so abundant, for it to produce its own offspring. Long before this, the male bird's voice had been heard, in gay anticipation, as he thinks of a mate and courts her. Even in February and March, the singing impulse that comes to all passerine birds, besets this member of a somewhat tuneless tribe. His song is not a double note, reiterated, like the Great Tit's, and the Coal's and the Marsh's, but a single high note, repeated with an accent that almost brings it into rhythm, and occasionally finishing with a little downward flourish. Without being melodious, it has a light, gay effect.

Presently the pair look for a hole in which to place the nest, and very happy and astute are they about the business, and very secret when they have found it. The choice of a hole, where large old trees are abundant, falls to a snug pocket in the bole or bough of oak, wych elm, cherry, or beech; but oftener, in Lakeland, it is within the recesses of an unmortared wall or byreside. Several times I have known a tree-hole taken that last year belonged to a Pied Flycatcher; so that the little bird's habit of choosing early, before migrants come, is a cunning one. And, having chosen, the hole has to be guarded and "stood by" till the right time comes--and it would never do to forestall this through misjudged haste--for building and laying. Very manful is the Blue Titmouse about this business, small as is his size. I have seen him, when a Great Tit invaded his right to a garden nest-box that he had taken previously, fight so fiercely that the two tumbled to the ground together; and, morever, he remained the victor and brought up a brood in the box.

Then, at exactly the right time for the coming food supply--and the birds fix their calendar wisely, by the bursting of the leaf-buds, and not be the day of the year--the two unite, and the hen promptly begins her nest, carrying in [most and small bents] till a good deep cushion is formed, on which the many little speckled eggs are laid. Then does the cock-bird follow her with offerings of food, which she receives with fluttering wings and low pleased tone. After that comes the cracking of the eggs beneath the mother's warm breast, and the parents' activity on behalf of the growing nestlings becomes incessant as May days go on. Very often the busy little Blue Tit's whole journeys to and fro with food are in sight, and their activity can be measured. Caterpillars are carried in, when the young are waxing big, at the rate of more than one a minute. The sanitation of the nest, too, has to be attended to.

Their colours become sadly dimmed after a fortnight of their labours, and should they bring the youngsters safely out of hole--a date varying, in my experience, from June 1st to 26th--they have still an arduous few days before them, in attending to the wants of helpless and crying bush-clingers.

But, by-and-by, the family party begins to patrol the trees in able-bodied comfort. Through hot summer days they will flit about the beech leaves, picking off, with cheerful notes of mi-si-si or sip sippi, the tiny but juicy morsels of blue-white aphides, which suck by the million the sap of the tree. Indeed their search for aphides and other insects will go on to September, when the first leaves, studded with corpses, begin to fall.

The family tie of the Blue Titmouse is soon shaken off, however, though the pair remain together through the year in great harmony; and the young early take independent ways, going to roost by themselves, or in couples. They like a dark shelter, and I have watched one or two go to bed in the deep inside cornice of a verandah with regularity through the evenings of the late July and August, the time at first being about 7.10 p.m.

The Blue Titmouse, towards autumn, appears to have a good reason for drawing to the house-face, and it may be heard "scrabbling" along the cross-bars of windows, and seen searching in crannies and corners of stone work and gutter. The reason, most certainly, is the tasty one of spiders, whose bags of eggs, laid about this time near the snares, it tears open and devours; and it is my impression that it eats the spider too, though I have never seen it actually devouring this, as I have the Wren. It will eat seed, too, in autumn, and will peck laburnum seed from the tree, but it is not, in my experience, such an inveterate seed-eater as its cousins the Great, the Coal, and the Marsh Titmice. Nor have I found it ranging the coppices, like the latter, in manifest search of cherry galls. Yet, when a broken gall has been placed outside the window, it has seized it with its feet, eaten the grub in centre, and then in visible excitement of palate, stabbed the tissue over and over, as if to see if there were more grub. With its mate, it joins on to those odd parties of Titmice that range in mid-winter the lonely wood sides together: and not till a time of spring and plenty does it, like many another, draw aloof and become exclusive and proud.

Mary L. Armitt.

Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, 2011-2015