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

Long-tailed tits are the cutest of British birds. Easily. They're also one of the most unusual, with a cooperative breeding system in which some adults help raise the chicks of their relatives instead of raising their own. They're very sociable in winter too, and you might have seen a large flock of them passing noisily through your garden, pausing briefly to feed on peanuts or fat balls. But the most exciting time to watch lotties (that's long-tailed tits) is in spring.

long-tailed tit by Marc Davidson, from the Springwatch Flickr group.

Spring is when flocks break up and pairs form, and the nest-building marathon begins. This can take 4-5 weeks of hard labour, weaving moss and plant fibres together with spiders' silk from egg cocoons (magic!) and covering the entire structure in lichen for camouflage. The diligent pair then line their nest with up to 2,500 feathers, collected over several days and carefully arranged to make a soft, warm cup. The result is a cosy ball around 15cm high and 10cm wide, with a small entrance hole near the top.

Long-tailed tit nest

Time to lay the eggs! The female lotti lays one every morning, each weighing less than a paperclip and not much bigger than a peanut. She lays around 10 of these tiny eggs (together weighing well over her own body mass), and then incubates for about two weeks.

Incubation is an arduous task, and although her mate may bring her a mouthful of insects now and then, she must leave the nest every 15 minutes or so for an avid foraging session. It's when she's away from the nest that the reason for the extraordinary investment in nest-building becomes apparent: the better crafted the nest, the slower the eggs cool and the less energy the female must spend to warm them up again. It's also the time when a long-tailed tit becomes a bent-tailed tit: so much time cooped up in the nest adds a comical curl to the female's elegant long tail.

This is the twentieth successive year that Ben and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield have studied long-tailed tits in the Rivelin Valley, and what better way to celebrate than seeing them on national TV.

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  • Comment number 16. Posted by katedennett

    on 11 Jun 2013 15:08

    I would like to know what advantage it is to a flock or family of long-tailed tits, to move in sequence, as they do, rather than as a unit like most other flocks. They always look as though they are flying a relay race.

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  • Comment number 15. Posted by sue brookes

    on 11 Jun 2013 14:58

    I watched the article on springwatch last night about long tailed tits.
    Can you tell me how the fledglings were already ringed when they fledged.
    at what age were they ringed?
    many thanks

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  • Comment number 14. Posted by Pip Gullett

    on 11 Jun 2013 07:07

    Wonderful observation by the lady who saw lotties collecting cat fur!
    The fledglings are colour-ringed before they leave the nest, when they are already adult-sized but not yet ready to fly. This is an undisruptive way to ensure that we can record and follow all of the lotties hatching in the Rivelin Valley.
    As for the hovering behaviour, we do believe this is a sign of nervousness (towards potential predators or novel objects such as cameras!), possibly the bird is visually scanning the area around the nest before entering/leaving. Hopefully one day somebody will have time to test this idea properly!

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  • Comment number 13. Posted by Dave C

    on 10 Jun 2013 19:46

    What I was trying to say is that maybe they hover near the next looking for food in the bushes around the nest, why fly further than you have to?

    As for scanning for predators, wouldn't they be advertising the nest to any predator they might be looking for?

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  • Comment number 12. Posted by Dave C

    on 10 Jun 2013 19:42

    Or looking for food?

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  • Comment number 11. Posted by Dave C

    on 10 Jun 2013 19:39

    I realise that this may be a personal opinion, but I think Long Tailed Tit chicks are the cutest of all

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  • Comment number 10. Posted by sharon

    on 10 Jun 2013 19:34

    How are the fledgling long tail tits. Already tagged ?

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  • Comment number 9. Posted by Richard the sceptic

    on 10 Jun 2013 19:29

    As we watched the adult leave the nest, it hovered above turning right around before flying off, your comment was that we don't know why they do this. It seems obvious to me that the parent was surveying the area for predators - why not test this hypothesis by introducing something that acts as a threat close to the nest and see if the bird returns to the nest or attacks to try to protect its young?

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  • Comment number 8. Posted by Sheila M Bury

    on 8 Jun 2013 10:34

    Enjoyed very much the "Long Tailed Tits of Rivelin Valley" they are beautiful birds and it was the first time I have seen their nest, what a fantastic piece of work. I had as many as eight on fatballs last winter, simply beautiful!!.

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  • Comment number 7. Posted by Bettina

    on 7 Jun 2013 15:00

    This is one of my favourite birds! Unfortunately I had no chance to watch yesterday. Since I'm watching from Germany I'm not entitled to view the episode on the internet. Please, please, please put the part about the long-tailed tits online for all of us to view!

    And congratulations to all of the shows - it is such a pleasure watching!

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