Long-tailed Tit Nesting: A Complete Guide

A beloved and beautiful garden bird, the Long-tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus) is widespread throughout Europe and much of Central and North Asia. Some might have been lucky enough to see a Long-tailed tit’s nest before - it is a work of art that is seldom seen and never forgotten! Nesting is a perilous activity for many birds, and their hard work and dedication can’t be underestimated!

Long-tailed tit nests are made from four carefully assembled components; lichen, feathers, moss, spider silk and spider egg cocoons. They can take around 2 to 3 weeks to complete, and there might be as many as 6,000 components! The inside of the nest is very cosy, lined with some 2,000 feathers collected from the ground or recycled from dead birds.

Since these nests take a while to build, pairs of Long-tailed tits may start as early as February, long before the breeding season gets into full swing. Peculiarly, Long-tailed tits tend to leave the nest for a few days before the female lays her clutch. The birds may watch to see if a predator has already noticed the nest.

Long-tailed tit nesting behaviours are complex, and the way they go about building the nest itself is pretty incredible - read on to learn more about the nesting behaviours of these small and sociable birds!

Long-tailed tit peeking out of the nest

Long-tailed tit peeking out of the nest

When do Long-tailed tits nest?

Long-tailed tits live throughout Europe and Central Asia, so they experience the traditional spring breeding season, running from late March until July. They generally start constructing their nest before the breeding season gets underway, sometimes as early as late February.

If the weather is still cold and wet, Long-tailed tits can postpone nest building until as late as April or May. If at all possible, they prefer to complete their nest nice and early so they can check it over and make any necessary tweaks before the female lays her clutch of eggs.

The nests take around three to four weeks to build, but when Long-tailed tits have to postpone nest building, they can be erected in just one week. Rushed nests are much more likely to fail and may lack structural integrity. Some late nests even lack the characteristic enclosed dome-like canopy of the Long-tailed tit nest.

Long-tailed tit perched on a branch

Long-tailed tit perched on a branch

Where do Long-tailed tits nest?

Long-tailed tits prefer nesting in dense, thorny foliage. Gorse and brambles are two popular choices - bramble hedgerows are particularly well-protected.

In some cases, Long-tailed tits build their nests high up in the tree canopy, providing the foliage is dense enough. Usually, they nest within a few feet of the ground.

When choosing a spot, the birds hover up and down, assessing the location for its nesting qualities. The nest scouting process often takes a few days. Experienced Long-tailed tits are tentative and calculated about the spot they choose and will move on if they have any reservations. Conversely, younger couples might go about building a nest in a less-than-ideal location.

Long-tailed tit building a nest

Long-tailed tit building a nest

What does a Long-tailed tit nest look like?

Long-tailed tit nests are small domes measuring around 15cm across and are ovular, or bottle-shaped. They’re relatively large for birds of this size - the female can lay as many as 15 eggs, so they need to be!

The exterior of a Long-tailed tit nest is made from moss, spider silks and lichen. Lichen and spider silk combine to create a sort of natural Velcro-like material which sticks and catches to the foliage around it. Moss provides structural stability and helps waterproof the nest. The entire construction is somewhat flexible and malleable, allowing it to move with the foliage around it during strong winds and rain.

Long-tailed tits line their nests with thousands of feathers. The Victorian ornithologist William McGillivray counted some 2,379 feathers when dissecting a used nest! Modern studies concur with this figure, and for much of the last week of construction, both birds will spend much of their days collecting feathers to line the nest.

The nest of a Long-tailed tit, in construction

The nest of a Long-tailed tit, in construction

How do Long-tailed tits build their nests?

The nests take at least three weeks to build, sometimes longer. Both the male and female build the nest, and the process is strongly cooperative. The pair will look for materials together and work as a team to construct the nest, communicating avidly as they go.

If the pair get started early in a mild February, they will take more time to choose a good spot and build as strong and sturdy a nest as they possibly can. There are two construction phases:

  • Building the outer structure: building the outer structure of the nest takes around two weeks or longer. First, a combination of moss, lichen and spider silks are collected and ‘glued’ and woven together.
  • Lining the nest: also called ‘feathering’. The last quarter of the building process involves insulating the nest with feathers collected locally. Long-tailed tits spend more time feathering the nest in colder, more northern regions.
A Long-tailed tit collecting moss for nest building

A Long-tailed tit collecting moss for nest building

How long do Long-tailed tits nest for?

Once the female lays her clutch, she begins to incubate the eggs. Incubation can take as long as two weeks, a long time for birds of this size. Incubation is an arduous process since there are usually at least 12 eggs to incubate.

The male feeds the female, though she also exits the nest occasionally to forage herself. Once hatched, Long-tailed tits rear the baby birds for the following 14 to 18 days. The breeding and nesting cycle of Long-tailed tits is long and intensive, which is why they put so much effort into building such a splendid nest!

When do baby Long-tailed tits leave the nest?

Baby Long-tailed tits fledge after around two weeks, but they stay under the close observation of their parents for the rest of the breeding season.

Families of Long-tailed tits often stay together for successive seasons, and the non-mature offspring will assist their parents until they’re old enough to mate themselves. Even after the offspring find their own mates, Long-tailed tits continue to live in extended family groups numbering some 10 to 20 birds.

Long-tailed tits are highly gregarious and sociable birds renowned for their altruism - couples that successfully rear chicks early in the season often go on to help other couples raise their chicks.

Long-tailed tit fledglings that have just left the nest

Long-tailed tit fledglings that have just left the nest

How many broods do Long-tailed tits have?

Long-tailed tits usually only have time to raise one brood. If their first nest fails early in the season, they will go on to build another one if at all possible. The second nest is usually erected much quicker than the first.

Unfortunately, the majority of Long-tailed nests fail, usually due to predation. Despite making every effort to conceal the nest, the size and form of Long-tailed nests are still conspicuous to predators. Magpies, crows and mammals such as weasels often find the nests, killing any hatchlings and rendering them nests useless. As a result of predation and adverse weather, fewer than 20% of Long-tailed nests survive in some regions, including in the UK and Western and Northern Europe.

This is partly why Long-tailed tits start building their nests early - if the nest fails early in the season, they may still have time to build another one.

However, if the nest fails in late April or May, there is not usually enough time to try and raise another brood. In this situation, the pair will often lend their assistance to nearby Long-tailed tits. This is known as cooperative breeding.

Long-tailed tit in winter

Long-tailed tit in winter

Cooperative breeding in Long-tailed tits

Long-tailed tits demonstrate cooperative breeding and altruism during the breeding season. This is uncommon and has intrigued ornithologists for hundreds of years.

There are two scenarios where Long-tailed tits engage in cooperative breeding:

  • When they successfully raise a brood through to fledging early in the season, or
  • When their nests fail, and there isn’t enough time to build a new one

In either of these situations, both birds may venture off to find another pair of nesting Long-tailed tits and help them, mainly by bringing them food to feed the chicks. This study found that as many as 50% of Long-tailed tit broods had ‘helpers’.

The motivation for this uncommon behaviour was somewhat of a mystery, but researchers now believe that by helping others fledge their young, Long-tailed tits are keeping their local populations healthy, which aids in their survival.

This study also found that becoming a helper meant that Long-tailed tits were more likely to survive the next year and were more likely to raise a successful brood themselves. This is likely because taking on the role of a teaches the birds vital experience in raising chicks.

Rather than leaving their parents, fledglings also often become helpers themselves, assisting their parents in raising next year’s young.

There is some debate whether such behaviours are truly altruistic or whether they’re selfish. In reality, selfish and altruistic traits such as these exist in somewhat of an intertwined duality, rather than in isolation of each other.

A pair of long-tailed tits

A pair of long-tailed tits

Do Long-tailed tits nest in the same place every year?

Long-tailed tits are non-migratory and tend to remain in close proximity to their nesting sites. If they raise a successful brood, they will often return to that same spot again next year.

What do Long-tailed tit eggs look like?

Long-tailed tit eggs are tiny, weighing about as much as a paperclip. They’re not much bigger than a peanut, measuring around 14 x 10mm. The eggs are primarily glossy off-white or slightly cream with black or purplish speckles.

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