No need to be blue

I had a rather eventful day last week. I work occasionally for an estate agent and was showing some people around a house they were interested in buying. I usually arrive early so that I can do things like switch on lights and make sure that there is nothing amiss before the viewers arrive. On this particular day, though, they were early and so I had not had time to go in and check it out.

I unlocked the front door and led them into the kitchen, only to be confronted with a huge hole in the ceiling, plaster all over the floor and water pouring in! Needless to say, they didn’t buy the house, although they were very gracious about the whole thing. One of their party then recounted a story of when she was also an estate agent and arrived to a house full of birds that had come in through an open window and couldn’t find their way out again. As a result every floor, surface and piece of furniture was covered in bird you-know-what.

According to my dad in his column from 25th April 1981, if blue tits get trapped in a building, they will start to tear paper into strips, either from the walls or from any source they can find. It’s not certain why they do this, but one theory is that they are trying to find food, and mimicking they way they rip away tree bark to find insects and grubs.

In 1981, we still had milk delivered to our doorstep in glass bottles which were sealed with foil tops, and somehow, blue tits knew that they contained something tasty. If you didn’t remember to leave out a pot or something else for the milkman to cover them, you would often wake up to find that the pesky wee birds had pecked through the foil to help themselves to the lovely cream, which we called ‘top of the milk’. In our house, it was a race to see who could get the ‘top of the milk’ to pour onto their cornflakes in the morning. As Dad was often the first up, he usually won.

Blue tits start looking for suitable nesting spots from February, and often return to the same places each spring, the adults living for an average of three years. They love a crack in a tree, a small hole in a wall, or a suitably-placed nesting box. When I was last at my mum’s we spotted them checking out the nesting box on our garage wall, and it always gives us a thrill to know they have moved in for another year. They’ve also been known to nest in rather unusual places, such as letter boxes, cigarette butt bins and hollow street lamps.

There is a tale told that in 1779 some blue tits decided to build a nest in a large stone bottle that was left to drain on a plum tree in an orchard belonging to Oxbridge Farm in Stockton-on-Tees. For the following 76 years, with the exception of 1851, the same bottle was occupied by successive generations of blue tits. This little bird produces one of the largest clutches among its avian peers, with the female laying between eight and 12 eggs, often more, and it was estimated that the bottle saw around 1000 chicks fledge from that spot.

The original plum tree was removed in 1820, and the bottle was moved to another tree, yet the birds still found it. In 1851, though, the blue tits found that the entrance to their favourite spot was blocked by an old nest as the farmer had forgotten to remove it, so they decamped elsewhere, only to return the following year once the problem had been rectified.

This tale was written down in an old book called ‘Whellan’s Durham County Directory for 1856’, and there are no further records of how long the bottle remained in situ, nor how long it was used as a nesting site for blue tits. A reader had written to Dad saying that he remembered the farmer telling him about the bottle in the 1920s, but unfortunately, Oxbridge Farm was eventually demolished.

If you have any stories about curious places that blue tits have been found nesting, do get in touch either via this paper, or via my web page (see below).

Contact me, and read more, at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug


This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 30th April and the Gazette & Herald on 28th April 2021

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