When Do Great Tits Nest?

In the bluey-green and gold trunks, weighing in at an impressive 14-22 grams, all the way from the Middle East, Central Asia and most of Europe, we have the lovely little great tit (parus major). Great tits may not win a boxing match, but they are the biggest tit found in the UK. But where and when do they nest? Let's find out, shall we?

Generally speaking, most great tits nest start to nest in late March, early April, and breeding usually begins in April or May.

That sentence almost makes nesting sound easy for great tits, but as we'll see, nesting for these birds can be a difficult challenge. Great tits often lay around 12 eggs because of the danger that lurks outside the nest.

Once the great tits have laid their eggs in April or May, now comes the fun part, protecting them. Great tits nest just about anywhere, mature woodland, holes in walls, even an abandoned nest of a bigger bird or squirrel drays. They lay so many eggs because many of them are grabbed from the nest by predators. Woodpeckers, weasels and even squirrels are known for grabbing eggs from nests. So, laying the eggs is the easy bit!

Great Tit collecting nesting materials

Great Tit collecting nesting materials

Where do great tits nest?

If a great tit had the perfect environment, they would choose to nest in mature woodland. And often use a hole in a tree to ensure as much protection as possible for their eggs.

Nowadays, space in mature woodland is somewhat limited. So, great tits can nest in holes in walls, gaps in rocks, even in old bird nests and squirrel drays. Man-made structures also attract great tits, with some nesting in air ducts, pipes and even letterboxes! They are also happy to use nesting boxes in gardens. The small entry into the box makes these birds feel right at home, and nesting boxes are large enough to cope with the many, many mouths they have to feed.

Man-made and man-provided nests are often a bit safer for great tits as well. They lay a lot of eggs because a lot of them never hatch due to predation. So, having a few nesting boxes in your garden can really help the tit population in your neck of the woods.

Great Tit seeking out a suitable place for nesting

Great Tit seeking out a suitable place for nesting

How do great tits build their nests?

Great tits build their nests with various materials, including grass, plant fibres, moss, hair, wool and feathers. They will create quite a big cup weaving the material together to create a strong and warm platform for their eggs as they often lay a rather large amount.

Great tits can lay up to 18 eggs at a time, but it is usually between 5-12 eggs. They lay a lot of eggs because, sadly, most don't make it past the hatching stage because of predators. This is likely why they have learnt to be quite aggressive, particularly at nesting sites, to protect their young.

Female Great Tit warming her eggs in the nest

Female Great Tit warming her eggs in the nest

Does the female great tit build the nest?

The female great tit takes on sole responsibility to build the nest. She also sits on the eggs all by herself as well.

Although the male would like us to remind you that they do feed the female while they are sitting on the eggs.

This is a brilliant way of telling the sex of these birds, though. If you have great tits in and around your garden and are wondering what sex they are, here's a tip. If you see a great tit with any nesting material in its mouth, grass, moss, small twigs, feathers, and so on, it is female. The females are the only ones who do any work towards the nest.

And if you see a great tit stuffing its face at your feeding table and a sudden look of panic comes over its face, this is the male. Forgetting he said he'd only pop out for a few seeds, and it's been hours!

A great tit nest inside a nest box, with eight chicks

A great tit nest inside a nest box, with eight chicks

How long do great tits take to fledge?

Great tits usually start breeding in March, and it takes about two weeks for the eggs to hatch. After this, the tits will fledge in between 16 and 22 days.

Great tit chicks are born naked and blind like most birds. However, when their feathers start to grow, they look exactly the same as adult great tits. This is quite rare, with most chicks having a much duller plumage than their parents. But great tit and blue tit chicks grow plumage that is the colour of the adults straight away.

Do great tits use nestboxes?

Great tits love nesting boxes. In fact, they are one of the safest places for these birds to lay their eggs. In the natural world, great tits will make their nests in holes in trees and gaps in rocks and things. They will also use man-made objects, so they nest in holes in walls, pipes and a great deal more.

In nature, though, their nests are very accessible, and predators will often steal their eggs. Woodpeckers, weasels and squirrels all steal great tits, eggs and chicks from nests. Nesting boxes offer a bit more of a challenge for these predators, so more of the brood tends to survive when they nest in boxes.

A great way of attracting great tits into your garden is with good quality food and a few nesting boxes. They may kick smaller species out of the nesting boxes, though, so be prepared for a bit of a fight.

Great Tit chick about to leave the nesting box

Great Tit chick about to leave the nesting box

Do great tits nest in the same place every year?

Unless the nesting site is severely disrupted, great tits will maintain the same territory year after year. Their chicks will also use the same nesting sites, so you can track the nesting sites of great tits back generations.

One of the most brilliant things about great tits is how well they have adapted to life now that we have taken much of their land away. They do prefer to nest in woodland areas, but in the UK now, sadly, this isn't always possible. Yet they have adapted to nesting in parks and gardens so well that the woods are a distance memory for most great tits.

Expert Q + A

Question

Great Tits started to build a nest in the bird box but seem to have abandoned it. Is this common?

BirdFact Team

Great Tits, like many other birds, are capable of changing their minds down to the very last minute when it comes to their nesting. This can be down to many reasons, including other birds nesting nearby, predators such as cats invading the space, or just a general feeling from the pair that it's not suitable to raise their young anymore.

It's worth leaving the nest box, as there is a slight chance they may come back, but if not, monitor it for a while, and when you're sure no birds are using it, clear it out, ready for the following nesting pair of birds.

Question

Can I throw the nest away after great tits have fledged?

BirdFact Team

Generally speaking, we recommend leaving nests in place until at least autumn (usually from September). After this time, you can safely remove any nests.

There are not too many garden bird species in the UK that typically reuse nests, so even if they chose to nest in your garden again, they'll probably rebuild a new nest next year.

Question

We have a great tit in our camera equipped nest box that has been roosting since mid January never having missed a night. Is he/she likely to build a nest?

BirdFact Team

All the signs are there showing that the Great Tit will hopefully decide to start building their nest in your box and will go on to raise their brood.

It's relatively common behaviour for the inspection process to begin early in the new year. Once they're happy with the flight path and they're convinced it's safe, they may start to become territorial around the area to keep other birds away.

There is, of course, a chance that they could always change their mind last minute, but all the signs are looking promising.

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