Asia
1 Jan 2020

The Special Way Long-tailed Tits Bring Up Their Chicks

Long-tailed Tit © HIH Princess Takamado
Long-tailed Tit © HIH Princess Takamado
By HIH Princess Takamado

'Through the Lens', Fujingaho Magazine, January, 2020

Click here to view pdf

Photos and text: Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado

English Translation: Asia Club, a WBSJ Volunteer Group (YOKOYAMA Kazuko, KASE Tomoko, Ueno Naohiro)

Just like a cotton ball with a long handle, the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) is so charming that it always brings a smile to every watcher. I think it is appropriate to introduce this bird for the New Year as a saying goes “Good fortune comes to the home of those who smile”. The Long-tailed Tit is the second smallest bird seen in Japan, following the smallest Goldcrest. I would like to pay attention to the long-tailed tits’ struggles for procreation by helping each other and occasionally summoning support even from birds of prey.

There is almost no difference in appearance between the long-tailed tit of the first photo and its subspecies (shimaenaga in Japanese) in Hokkaido, shown below. Both have black wings, black tails and white underpart. The back is grayish black in the center and light burgundy on the sides and they both have black eyes and tiny beaks. However, when watched from the front, the subspecies is really like a little snowman without black eyebrows on the head. As both look as if co work something, I feel inclined to add words in a balloon.

A subspecies of the Long-tailed Tit © HIH Princess Takamado

Long-tailed Tits are so small and active that it is quite difficult to photograph them. On this heavy occasion of the turn of the era to Reiwa this year, I stirred up myself to attentively observe the birds rearing chickens from a tent settled a little farther from their nest and succeeded in taking a lot of photos of them. I picked up one of them and trimmed it as shown next. The birds collect moss and make a round nest, whose outside is wrapped up with umenokigoke (Parmotrema tinctorum)and pasted with spider silk for camouflage. The inside is lined with downy feathers and animal hair. I remember that once I have touched a nest from which chicks had already left. It felt fluffy like a soft wool hat.

A Long-tailed tit lays as many as 7 to 10 eggs, but it is said that the survival rate of eggs and chicks is not high. This must be the reason the bird lays so many eggs. In order to hatch eggs and breed chickens until they become big enough to leave the nest safely, the bird is likely to intentionally nest close to the Common Buzzard or Northern Goshawk to avoid predation. If so, it is definitely a splendid wisdom for its survival.

The bird sits on the eggs for 12 to 14 days. When a parent comes out of a domed nest after sitting on the eggs motionlessly for such a long time, the tip of its long tail is bent. Watching such a scene and thinking of the bird’s sincere way of living calms down our mind. Then it takes more or less than 20 days until the chicks leave the nest, during which time parents are busy bringing food such as tiny insects at first and gradually changing to bigger ones. In the photo three chicks are seen opening their mouths wide. How do they rotate and get fed equally? Chicks can fledge at the same time only because they are assumed to be equally fed, so I really wonder why I missed the moment of rotation.   As chicks grow bigger, the nest swells more and more and when it has bulged tight to the extent it can blow off anytime, parents lead the chicks to leave the nest all at once.

Chicks of the Long-tailed Tit in the nest and a parent bird (or a helper). © HIH Princess Takamado

I could observe closely and find out that there was a helper bird, other than the male and female parents, which carried food to the nest as well.   It is said that in some cases there can be more helpers.   Some 5 pairs of long-tails tits make one group and they seem to have such a peculiar habit as to help each other to rear chicks when the eggs don’t hatch or chicks are predated.

Watching how they co-operate, I couldn’t but consider that in our human society, too, if there were support from husbands, friends, young people and those who have finished bringing up children, it could be of some help to work as a brake against the baby bust. In a society like the one in old Japan where extended families ordinarily existed, a lot of helpers were available in case of need. So we might be able to learn a lot from the way the long-tailed tits bring up their chicks.  

Long-tailed Tit © HIH Princess Takamado