If you’ve a bird feeder in your garden, coal tits might well be a common sight. But you’ll need to stay alert to get a good look – these active birds like to keep on the move. RSPB England’s Rich Morris looks at the key features and behaviours of this little aerial acrobat.

Point a coal tit in the direction of a conifer wood and you won’t see it for dust. The commercial planting of conifer forests across the UK, coupled with warmer winters, has helped support the resident population. Despite this, coal tit numbers have still declined sharply in recent years. They remain a reasonably common visitor to our gardens though and a third of people taking part in last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch reported sightings.

Coal tit key stats

Size: smaller than a great tit, roughly the same size as a blue tit
Identifiable features: white cheeks, distinctive black cap and white patch at the back of the neck
When to see them: all year round
Where to see them: woodland (especially conifer woods), parks and gardens across the UK
What do they eat: insect larvae, seeds and nuts
Song: listen here

How to spot a coal tit

As mentioned above, conifer woods and plantations are great places to see coal tits as they have access to their favoured diet of spiders, insects, seeds and nuts. They’re also regular visitors to garden bird tables – especially during the winter months. Do keep your binoculars handy though as coal tits are very active and impressively agile in the air, often choosing to feed high up in the canopy of trees.    

If you’re trying to identify a coal tit by ear, listen out for the fast, repetitive song of two descending notes “tea-cher, tea-cher”. Coal tits have a higher pitched song than great tits, but the two can be difficult to tell apart.

The easiest way to tell a coal tit by sight is to look out for those brilliant white cheeks, paired with the distinctive white patch at the back of the neck. It stands out clearly against the black head. Their backs, wings and tails are dark grey, while the plain and buff-coloured underparts are missing the great tit’s tell-tale black stripe. With practice, you’ll also quickly begin to appreciate the size difference between a great tit and the smaller coal tit.

How to attract coal tits to your garden

‘Feed them and they will come’. Coal tits will happily make use of garden feeders, but don’t expect them to stick around. Typically a coal tit will break from cover, snatch some food and then quickly fly off to cache it for later. Peanuts are a definite favourite, but they’ll happily eat a variety of other bird food.

Putting out high quality, supplementary food is a great way to attract birds to your garden. Just remember to always provide a source of clean water too, and make hygiene a top priority. We’ve lots of information available about how to keep your bird bath and feeders clean.   

There are many other ways to make an outdoor space attractive to wildlife. Try leaving parts of your garden untamed and always avoid using insecticide as this can harm birds. Trees and bushes will provide cover for birds, giving them with a safe space to dart to if any predators are nearby.

There’s still time to sign up to the Big Garden Birdwatch. Register here: rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

Image credit: Ray Kennedy (rspb-images.com)

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