Coal Tit or Great Tit: How to Tell the Difference?

Posted on: 24 September 2021

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Coal Tit or Great Tit: How to Tell the Difference?

Coal Tits (Periparus ater) and Great Tits (Parus major) are both common and widespread species of the tit family (Paridae) and can be found mainly in most parts of Europe, Asia and northern parts of Africa. They both have similarities, including their habitat and some of their features, so it's common that people can have trouble telling them apart. So, what are the differences between a Coal Tit and Great Tit?

The best ways to tell the difference between a Coal Tit and Great Tit is by the colour of their plumages and the size. Great Tits have a bolder and more striking plumage of olive-green and yellow with a distinctive black stripe that runs down the centre. Coal Tits have mainly a dullish-grey plumage with mixtures of buff. Coal Tits are also quite a bit smaller than the great tit. Both birds have black on their heads and white under the eye.

There are a few more ways to distinguish these species, which we will go into more detail below. We'll also touch upon some commonalities and frequently asked questions too.

Coal tit close up

Close up of a Coal Tit

Great tit

Close up of a Great Tit

Which is bigger, the Coal Tit or Great Tit?

Great Tits are the largest common member of the tit family and are much larger than Coal Tits. This can be a great way to tell the difference when they are both in the same place, such as a feeder in the garden or far aware where the plumage is difficult to distinguish.

Great Tits, on average, are 14cm in length, have wingspans of 24cm and weigh around 18 grams. Coal Tits, on the other hand, have average sizes of just 11.5cm in length, a wingspan of 19cm, and an average weight of 9 grams - which is all considerably less than the measurements of a great tit.

Coal Tit (left) and Great Tit (right) on bird feeder

Coal Tit (left) and Great Tit (right) on bird feeder

Which is more common, the coal tit or great tit?

In Britain, you're much more likely to see a great tit rather than a coal tit. This is because there is estimated to be over 2.4 million breeding pairs of great tits compared to around 660,000 breeding pairs of coal tits.

Coal Tits are resident breeders in the UK, and Great Tits have a substantial resident breeding population as well; however, there is also a wintering population that comes and spends time here over the colder months. Both these species can be found year-round across the majority of the UK; however, there are a few places in Scotland they cannot be found.

Coal Tit in flight

Coal Tit in flight

Other differences between the Coal Tit and Great Tit

Plumage

Both the great tit and coal tit have black caps on their heads and contrasting white cheeks underneath. They also both have black eyes and similar dark beaks - although the great tit has a larger one, as they are proportionately larger.

The legs are also a similar colour, which is greyish.

Coal Tit Plumage

The plumage of a coal tit (or cole tit) is somewhat muted overall because of the dull colours on their body. The underparts are mostly a creamy buff colour, and the upperparts are predominantly greyish but can sometimes have flashes of a pale olive.

The wings are mostly dark grey and have two clearly defined white bars/

Juvenile Coal Tits are mainly similar to adults; however, young birds have a slightly yellow tinge on their cheeks, which are white on adults.

Great Tit Plumage

Great Tits have bold and striking plumages. The yellow underparts, which is halved by a central black band, are one of their most distinguishable features. The upperparts are mainly an olive-green colour.

The wings are mainly dark and have white detailing, and there is also usually one prominent white stripe across the wing.

The tail of a great tit is also proportionately longer than most other tits (other than the long-tailed tit), which they use for both communication and manoeuvrability.

Juvenile great tits have similar plumages to adults, but they have lighter markings on the head and also have yellowish tinges on the cheeks, instead of the bright white.

Juvenile Coal Tit

Juvenile Coal Tit

Juvenile Great Tit

Juvenile Great Tit

Song and Call

Great Tits and Coal Tits are both fairly vocal; however, if compared, the great tit tends to be more vocal between the two.

The song of the great tit is a repetition of cheerful high-pitched calls similar to a 'ti-ta ti-ta' sound. their calls are also high pitched and can sometimes be a harsh 'che che che che', which is similar in a way to a magpie.

The call and song of a coal tit is also high pitched ad the song is a 'seetoo, seetoo, seetoo' sound.

Coal Tit Call/Song

Stuart Fisher, XC627893. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/627893.

Great Tit Call

Jorge Leitão, XC676430. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/676430.

Behaviour

Great Tits generally have bolder personalities and often use their size to dominate and scare off other birds from feeders. Coal Tits are generally quite bold too, but the size advantage of the great tit usually ends up with them 'winning' any battles at feeders.

It's thought that part of this bold personality comes down to great tits feeding their babies spiders, which contain high taurine levels - research has shown a link between this and more confident and higher intelligent birds.

Both birds are generally gregarious and flock with others outside of the breeding season and sometimes even other tits.

Habitat

Both coal tits and great tits tend to have similar habitats, which is one of the main reasons why people can have issues with differentiating between the two.

The habitats are the same, and both species prefer pretty much any areas with trees, such as woodlands, parks and gardens in towns, villages and cities.

The only real difference is that coal tits like and often prefer coniferous forests and woodlands, whereas great tits tend to avoid woodland with coniferous trees.

Great Tit in flight

Great Tit in flight

Diet

Both birds have similar diets, which consist mainly of insects, spiders, nuts, fruits and seeds.

Great Tits love sunflower seeds from bird feeders, so be sure to stock your feeders full of them to attract them to your garden.

Coal Tits are particularly fond of conifer seeds - which is why they like coniferous woodland. They also tend to obtain their food and take it away from the area to hide it, to consume later.

Migration

The majority of great tits in the UK are residents and therefore stay all year round. A small wintering population migrates south and ends up in the UK over the colder months.

Coal Tits are all generally resident, and spend all year in the UK and will not migrate.

Breeding

Both the coal tit and great tit usually start breeding in March. Coal Tits usually end their breeding season in July, and great tits usually finish earlier, around May.

Great Tits usually lay between six and eleven eggs, and coal tits lay clutches of between five and thirteen eggs.

Coal Tit perched on a tree branch

Coal Tit perched on a tree branch

Life expectancy

The average lifespan for a great tit is around three years on average, and the average for a coal tit is slightly shorter at two years.

Conservation status

In the UK, both the coal tit and great tit are categorised as green; this means the populations are generally stable, and there is no cause for concern for the species.

Globally, they are both on the IUCN list as Least Concern. This also means that the number of birds is at a consistent level, and there is no cause for concern.

The only difference between the two is that it's thought that the population of great tits is increasing due to recent range expansions, and coal tits are slightly decreasing - although they are decreasing, it's not at a rate that there is a cause for concern.

In Europe alone, there is an estimated breeding population of between 10 and 27 million pairs of coal tits. Great Tits, on the other hand, are estimated to have a European breeding population of between 65 and 106 million pairs.

This means just in Europe; there is up to an estimated 54 million coal tits and 212 million great tits!

Compare Coal Tit and Great Tit

Coal Tit

Coal Tit

Periparus ater

.

Length:

11.5cm

Wingspan:

17cm to 21cm

Weight:

8g to 10g

Learn about the Coal Tit
Great Tit

Great Tit

Parus major

.

Length:

14cm

Wingspan:

24cm

Weight:

18g to g

Learn about the Great Tit

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