Long-tailed tits - working together

Guest bloggers: Ben Hatchwell and Pip Gullet, University of Sheffield.

After two weeks of diligent incubation, the eggs are ready to hatch. The newborn chicks are tiny, blind bags of skin and bone, and it's going to take some busy hunting by both parents to fill them out.

In just two weeks each chick will be heavier than its parents, fully feathered, and almost ready to fly. For mum and dad, who work dawn 'til dusk to satisfy the gaping mouths of their hungry brood, two weeks may not seem such a short time. However, help may be at hand.

If another pair of long-tailed tits nearby has failed to breed (probably because a hungry predator has swung by their nest), one or both failed parents may start helping to raise their neighbours' chicks instead!

It is this truly remarkable phenomenon that sets long-tailed tits apart from every other British bird. About half of all pairs are assisted in this way by as many as eight 'helpers' (more commonly one or two). Each helper works almost as hard as the parents in feeding the hungry brood.

Why feed someone else's chicks when you could save your energy to survive the year ahead and breed again the following year? Blood is thicker than water, and kinship holds the key. If you can't pass on your genes to the next generation by producing your own offspring, the next best thing is to pass them on by increasing the success of your relatives.

Helpers are usually close relatives of the brood they care for, most often an uncle. Helped chicks are fatter chicks, and fatter chicks are more likely to survive their first year of life and become parents themselves the next spring.

The private life of long-tailed tits

This extraordinary behaviour raises all sorts of fascinating questions. With such a brilliantly detailed 20-year dataset, we can tackle mysteries such as how do long tailed tits recognise their relatives, how do they avoid inbreeding in this seemingly incestuous scenario, why are females rarely helpers, and why are more species not cooperative?

Answering these and many other questions will keep us busy in the Rivelin Valley for many years to come. It's been a pleasure to share it.

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by theSteB

    on 13 Jun 2013 08:59

    Great study. I love these little birds. When I am out and about looking at things in the natural world, or photographing insects in the undergrowth, they are often my companions. Being surrounded by a group of them with their soothing contact calls is a marvellous experience. Their cooperation is incredible. Generally I keep away from nests I am aware of, however it is very clear to me that often more than a pair are engaged with the same nests. When you watch them up close you do see a bit of squabbling going on, but it is the minor squabbling of close families. They are very different in their behaviour to almost every other bird. Goldcrests are to my eyes the most similar in niche, except they lack the group behaviour. Although they feed, nest and call in a similar manner. Whilst Goldcrests seem to share a similar niche, I haven't observed any competitive behaviour between these species. They appear very tolerant of each other.

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by Bettina

    on 13 Jun 2013 08:46

    Wonderful that the film is online now - I love to watch it agian and again. Thank you so much!

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by Bettina

    on 12 Jun 2013 18:12

    Thank you so much for all the information about the long-tailed tits. I was so happy on Monday when they were in the show again! We have them in our garden, and what I love about them is how social they are. There are always 5 or 6 hanging on the suet cakes or fatballs together, whereas the other tits fight against each other.

    Springwatch is fantastic, and Springwatch live in our garden also - day and night. At least seven hedgehogs feast on cat food and peanuts, and a beech marten comes for the peanuts, too. Fun to watch! In daytime I can watch the chicks of starlings, sparrows, great and blue tits with their parents.

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