Blue Tit-Titw Tomos Las

Watercolour with gold-leaf

The blue tit and other tit species were known as Titmice, a name taken from Middle English, (Norwegian tita “a little bird”, Icelandic ttitr meaning small),  and mouse – in Old English mase, meaning a small bird.

 ‘Tit’ referred to any small object or creature and is of pre-7th century Norse origin. The first known use of ‘titmouse’ and plural ‘titmouses’  has been dated back to the 14th century and ‘Tom titmouse’  around the 17th century. ‘Titmouse’ was used for this genus by most old authors, but Yarrell in his first edition shortened the name to ‘Tit’ and his example has been followed by many later authors.

The blue titmouse, or nun, is a great frequenter of houses, and a general devourer. Beside insects, it is very fond of flesh, a vast admirer of suet, and haunts butchers’ shops. I have known twenty on a morning caught with snap mouse-traps, baited with tallow or suet.”

These words by the curate of Selborne, Gilbert White, in correspondence with his friend, Thomas Pennant in 1789, describes the agile and curious character of the blue tit. The colourful mix of its cobalt-blue crown, yellow, white and green makes the blue tit one of our most attractive and recognisable garden visitors.

The Rev Charles Swainson, Rector of Old Charlton, noted in his Provincial Names And Folk Lore Of British Birds (1885) that the call of the blue tit was said to warn of cold weather.

Blue tits never fly far from their homes, because of this it is said that sailors have a particular fondness for blue tits, believing that they not only bought them good luck but were also a welcome sign of home. The sight of them would mean that land is near. Blue tits are also believed to carry the spirits of sailors who have died at sea, to their home in heaven.

Blue tits can learn and pass on learned behaviour to other tit species. An example of this, dating from the 1920s, is the ability to open milk bottles with foil tops, to get at the cream underneath. This is not a behaviour you see much today because of changes in human dietary habits, the drinking of low-fat or skimmed milk instead of full-fat and the change to plastic containers with hard plastic lids, instead of the milkman. Their instinct to strip bark from trees in search of insects has developed into a tendency to peel building materials such as thatch, wallpaper, stucco, and window putty. They can also  learn to avoid unpleasant foods without even tasting them watching another bird’s disgusted response!

According to the New Scientist, blue tits divorce their partners if they turn up late to annual breeding season!

About 85 per cent of blue tits are socially monogamous, meaning they form couples and share the workload of raising their young. Staying together long-term is thought to be beneficial because they can focus on breeding and parenting rather than having to look for new mates.” New Scientist

It is this monogamy that links blue tits with love, hope, and faith and in Celtic symbolism, the blue tit is seen as a powerful symbol.  

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