It’s positive news for the Bearded Tit, whose numbers look set to increase over the coming years, says Kate
The Bearded Tit will continue to do well in the UK given the right conditions
BEARDED TITS ARE not members of the tit family, and the males’ eye-catching facial markings look more like ornate moustaches than a beard, so perhaps they would be better named ‘Moustachioed Parrotbills’. While this is unlikely to catch on, their other names ‘Bearded Reedlings’ or just ‘Reedlings’ also fit the bill pretty well, since these are specialist birds of reedbeds. Family groups can be detected by their ‘pinging’ calls, but they can often go unseen, unless they decide to feed on seed heads or fly above the reeds. Their global distribution stretches from Europe across central Asia and Kazakhstan to Mongolia and China, and it is in eastern areas where other species of parrotbill are found. Their European populations are extremely patchy and fragmented, as they only occur in large reedbeds, and they don’t occupy all areas of suitable habitat. It may be that they are also sparsely distributed throughout eastern areas of their range, but these populations are not as well studied. They are not migrants in the traditional sense of the word, but they will disperse to different sites in the autumn and winter, particularly if they have had a good breeding season and produced large numbers of young. Some birds will make a return migration in spring, but others will stay to breed at different sites, so they are often quick to colonise new areas. This pioneering spirit is helped by very strong pair bonds, possibly even forged when birds are still juveniles just a few months old, and pairs are known to stay together even when travelling between sites for winter. At all times of year they live in reedbeds, and depend on the resources they find there. They feed exclusively on insects during the breeding season, but in the winter they switch to feeding on reed seeds. This switch is accompanied by a remarkable change in their bodies, as their gut enlarges and hardens to cope with the change in diet. They ingest grit, up to 600 tiny fragments, which are held in their stomachs to help break down seeds. In spring, they excrete the grit and their digestive systems return to normal. This reliance on seeds means they suffer in hard winters, when snowfall smothers the reeds, but they are prolific breeders, producing up to three broods of young in a season, and can quickly BEARDED TITS Warmer winters and the correct habitat will help this bird thrive bounce back given favourable conditions. Around the early 19th Century, Bearded Tits were found in suitable habitats across much of south-eastern England, but following drainage and agricultural intensification their numbers dropped. They were nearly wiped out by the hard winter of 1946–47. It has been suggested that the total European population may have fallen to just a few hundred pairs at this time. Recovery, however, was rapid, and was boosted by the massive reedbeds created as part of land reclamation in the Netherlands in the 1950s. These created perfect conditions for thousands of Bearded Tits, and immigration from this population is thought to have driven the subsequent British increase. During the 1968–72 breeding bird atlas they were recorded in coastal areas in East Anglia and a few sites along the south coast and inland. By the time of the Bird Atlas 2007–11 these eastern areas had been consolidated, and breeding birds had spread to the Tay reedbeds in Scotland as well as sites in north-west and south-west England, and North Wales. The total population of Bearded Tits was estimated at 718 pairs in 2010, but this is thought to be an under-estimate, and, barring habitat loss or extreme snowfall, their numbers are expected to continue to increase.
Pairs are known to stay together even when travelling between sites for winter
The BTO runs volunteer surveys to monitor and explain changes in bird populations, including the Birdtrack. To find out more visit bto.org/ volunteer-surveys or email email@example.com