A rare breeding bird in the UK, twite numbers have dropped dramatically in northern England since 1990, with only a handful of pairs remaining. Efforts are ongoing to revive the UK breeding population, with further pairs nesting in Wales and across Scotland, which is joined by migrants from northern Europe during winter months.
Twites are small, brown finches, with streaky light and dark brown plumage, and a distinctive short stubby beak, which is yellow in winter and turns grey in summer. Their breast and belly are a paler shade of buff, with darker streaks on the breast and flanks.
Male twites have a pinkish rump, although this is usually hidden by the wings when perched. Pale barring is visible across the dark wings, and their dark brown tail is slightly forked.
Female twites are similar in appearance to males, but there are a few subtle differences that make it possible to make a positive identification between the sexes. Female twites do not have the same pink tinge to their rump, which is instead a buff colour, and the white markings on their wings is less well defined.
Young twites look like adult females, but with richer, warmer tones of brown-buff colouring.
Close up of a Twite on the ground
A relatively small finch, the twite is similar in size to its related species the linnet, but with a longer and more noticeably forked tail. Data shows only marginal differences between the slightly larger male and smaller female in size.
Twites are relatively small members of the finch family
The species’ name “twite” comes from the distinctive, nasal rising “twi-ett” call.
Twites follow a mainly plant-based diet, with grains, seeds and buds the most important element. Some invertebrates may also be eaten, including larvae, flies and beetles.
Baby twites are initially fed on a diet of softened regurgitated seeds. Once they fledge and begin to forage for themselves, they widen their food intake to include harder seeds from a wider range of weeds, grasses and seaweeds.
Twite perched on a branch, Hebrides, Scotland, UK
The preferred breeding habitats of twites are expanses of treeless moorland, particularly coastal plains and higher ground, including slopes, grassy hillsides and heath-covered rocky steppes.
During winter, coastal fringes provide a suitable habitat for overwintering twites from northern Europe, and lower altitude sites are also popular.
Twites breed from Ireland and the British Isles in the west, around the entire coast of Norway and across the border into Arctic Russia. Winter months are spent further south in Europe, between Ireland in the west, through northern France as far west as Poland, and into Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary.
Isolated wintering grounds are also found in Turkey. To the west, a further population of twites is present, with resident birds across central Asia from the Caspian Sea as far as Mongolia in the east, and south-western China to the south.
The European population of twites was estimated at between 166,000 and 566,800 pairs, not including Russia. The majority of these live in Norway.
Twite in its natural habitat, foraging for food
During breeding season, twites are relatively scarce, with only 12 pairs thought to breed in England, and less than 8,000 pairs in total breeding across the entire UK (in Wales and Scotland).
In winter, twites from Europe arrive in Britain and Ireland in their tens of thousands, resulting in the species becoming temporarily far less rare between October and March.
Breeding in the UK is limited to a few specific areas of moorland in northern England, and is slightly more widespread across north Wales and the Scottish Highlands. In winter some twites remain in coastal northern and west Scotland.
According to data retrieved from ringing records, twites that breed to the east of the Pennines migrate to the south-east coast in winter.
Those to the west of the Pennines spend winter months between Lancashire and the Hebrides, while almost the entire Welsh population of twites spends winter months in Flintshire.
Twite perched on a wooden fence, East Yorkshire, UK
The oldest recorded ringed twite reached an age of 6 years and 7 months. Breeding occurs for the first time at one year.
It is believed that the main predators of twites are stoats and weasels.
Twites are a Schedule 1 species under the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, meaning that as well as it being illegal to kill, injure or capture a wild twite, it is also an offence to disturb their nest sites and damage or destroy their eggs.
Only around 7,850 pairs of twites breed in the UK each year, with only an estimated 12 pairs in England, leading to the species being given Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list in 1996.
Each winter, up to 135,000 migrating twites arrive in Britain and Ireland, which temporarily boosts the UK’s population. Across Europe, they are considered a species of least concern.
Between October and March are the best time to spot Twites in the UK
Twites nest in low vegetation, usually deep into bushes or shrubbery, and usually as close to the ground as possible, if not on the ground itself. Nest sites are concealed by grasses, rushes or clumps of roots.
The nest is constructed by the female twite, crafting a deep cup of heather, bracken and grass, and lined with animal fur and soft feathers.
Twite eggs are pale to dark blue in colour, and streaked with reddish-brown spotting. A typical clutch contains 3 to 6 eggs, which are incubated by the female alone for 12 to 13 days.
Each breeding season, twites form monogamous pairs, remaining together to raise their young and occasionally pair bonds may last for more than one season. Raising two broods in one year is typical, with the breeding season lasting between April and August.
Twite gathering materials to build the nest
Twites are territorial birds during the breeding season, although occasionally semi-colonial nesting grounds may be established, with up to 15 pairs nesting in close proximity to each other.
Once breeding is complete, larger winter flocks begin to gather, with sometimes hundreds of twites foraging together.
Twites are mostly migratory, usually spending winter months some distance from where they breed. UK breeding populations of twites do stay within the UK all year round, but relocate to different geographical areas as soon as temperatures start to drop.
The eastern and south-eastern coasts of England play host to thousands of incoming twites each winter, seeking temporary relief from the harshest conditions in northern Norway and Arctic Russia.
Less than 8,000 twites are believed to be year-round residents in the UK, with the vast majority of this number breeding in Wales and Scotland.
Although they do not spend the entire year within the same territory, they do not leave British shores in winter, temporarily relocating southwards until spring.
Twites are a mostly migratory species of bird
Efforts are underway to revive the struggling twite populations in the UK, with farmers offered advice on how to make their land twite-friendly to encourage breeding by the Twite Recovery Project.
Twites will be attracted by open meadows and grasslands which offer foraging opportunities for a variety of seeds on which they can feed their young.
Moorland sites are used for nesting, and taller vegetation around the edges of heaths, with bracken and plenty of weeds, such as sorrel and dandelion, will also be beneficial to breeding twites.
By agreeing to cut hay later in the year, farmers can encourage breeding twites to nest on their land.
12cm to 14cm
22cm to 24cm
13g to 18g
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