Y LLEIAN, LLYGODEN Y DERW, IN ANCIENT BRITISH.
BLUE-CAP. BLUE-BONNET. NUN. TOMTIT. BLUE MOPE. BILLY-BITER.
Parus coeruleus, MONTAGU. BEWICK. SELBY. Parus—A contraction
of Parvus—Little ? Cceruleus—Blue—azure.
From the window of my study, in which, 'ubi quid datur'
(or rather detur) 'oti,' the 'midnight oil' is burned, by which 'illudo
chartis'—in plain English, in which this work is written, I
have almost daily opportunities of watching the interesting actions
of this pretty little bird, which I shall accordingly describe.
The Blue Titmouse frequents the whole of Europe, except the most northern
parts, but is found so far as Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and
the south of Russia; southwards, in Greece, Holland, France, and Switzerland,
as also, it is said, in the Canary Islands; and in Asia—in Japan,
according to Temminck, and Asia Minor. It is very common throughout
England and Ireland, as also in Scotland, except the extreme north.
They are not migratory, but in or before hard weather they move southwards,
to escape the severity of the north, returning when that cause is
removed. In the autumn, after the cares of bringing up a family are
over, they often approach nearer to houses and gardens, and may be
seen on almost every hedge.
These birds are of a pugnacious disposition, and frequently quarrel
with their neighbours, as well as among themselves: the Robin, however,
is quite master of the field. Two were once observed so closely engaged
in combat, that they both suffered themselves to be captured by a
gentleman who saw them. They are very bold and spirited, and are caught
without difficulty in traps. They often assail their enemy, the Hawk—the
destroyer of their species, chasing him in the same way that Swallows
do; as also Magpies, Thrushes, and any other suspicious characters,
and the Owl they are particularly inveterate against. They bite severely
if caught, and the hen bird in like manner will attack any one who
molests her when sitting, in the discharge of which duty she is so
devoted that she will sometimes suffer herself to be taken off the
nest with the hand; otherwise, if the nest be disturbed in her absence,
she forsakes it. One has been known to sit still while a part of the
tree which guarded the entrance of her retreat was sawn off. Another,
mentioned by Yarrell, which built in a box hung up against a house,
kept in it while carried into the house, and did not forsake it when
When the young are hatched, both birds become very clamorous, and
have even been known to fly at and attack persons approaching the
nest. They pass most of their time in trees, after the manner of the
other Titmice, often frequenting the same locality from day to day
for some while, in search of food. ' So nimble are they,' says J.
J. Briggs, Esq., 'in this operation, that having once alighted on
the stem of a plant, be it ever so fragile, and though it bends from
its perpendicular until the end almost touches the roots, the bird
rarely quits his hold until he finishes his examination of the leaves.'
They also alight on the ground, or in a stubble field, to pick up
what they may meet with there, and cling with perfect ease, for the
like purpose, to the smooth bark of a tree, a wall, or a window-frame,
when they sometimes tap at the window, like the familiar Redbreast,
possibly looking at the reflection of themselves: from these habits
their claws are often much worn. All their motions are extremely quick,
nimble, and active. In the spring they are mostly seen in pairs, in
the summer in families, and later on in the year, occasionally, in
small flocks. They frequent cultivated districts, and are to be seen
in any and every place where timber abounds or hedgerows exist, in
greater or less abundance. They roost at night in ivy, or the holes
of walls and trees, and under the eaves of thatched places, or in
any snug corner. They are the most familiar, and perhaps the most
lively of the genus. In severe winters they often perish from cold.
Mr. Thompson, of Belfast, in describing the extent to which these
birds are capable of being tamed, speaks of one which 'from its familiarity
and vivacity was most amusing. The cage was covered with close netting,
which it several times cut through, thereby effecting its escape into
the room. It then flew to the children, and having taken hold of a
piece of bread or cake, in the hand of the youngest, would not forego
the object of attack, though shaken with the greatest force the child
could exert; indeed, the latter was so persecuted on one occasion
for a piece of apple, that she ran crying out of the apartment. It
was particularly fond of sugar. Confined in the same cage with this
bird were some other species, and among them a Redbreast, which it
some-times annoyed so much as to bring upon its head severe chastisement.
A favourite trick was to pull the feathers out of its fellow-prisoners.
The young Willow Wren already alluded to was sadly tormented in this
way. A similar attempt was even made on a Song Thrush, introduced
to its domicile, but it was successfully repelled. This mischievous
Tit escaped out of doors several times, but always returned without
being sought for.'
The flight of this species is rather unsteady, executed by repeated
flappings, and if lengthened is undulated.
The Blue-cap seems to be omnivorous in its appetite. Its principal
food consists of caterpillars, spiders, moths, beetles, and other
insects, and their eggs. In quest of these it plucks off numberless
buds, but it is at least questionable whether the remedy is not even
in this case far better than the disease, for doubtless the insects
or their eggs, which it thus destroys, would eventually otherwise
consume those very leaves, now, though prematurely, 'nipped in the
bud.' It often, like the other species, holds any food between its
feet, swaying its body up and down as it hammers away at it. 'In what
evil hour, and for what crime,' says Mr. Knapp, 'this poor little
bird could have incurred the anathema of a parish, it is difficult
to conjecture. An item passed in one of our late churchwardens' accounts,
was 'for seventeen dozen of Tomtits' heads.'' A few peas are for the
most part the extent of its depredations. In the late autumn I have
seen one pecking at an apple left as useless on a tree. Grain, especially
oats, which they hold between their claws, and pick at until they
twitch them from the husk, seeds, and berries, they likewise feast
on; they are fond also of animal food, and will, occasionally, so
some say, destroy other small birds. They have been observed by J.
J. Briggs, Esq., to carry food—a caterpillar, or an insect,
to the young, three or four times every ten minutes. Mr. Weir communicated
to Mr. Macgillivray his observations on their feeding their young,
from a quarter-past two in the morning, to half-past eight in the
evening, and found that they did so in that period, on the average
of the different hours, four hundred and seventy-five times, each
time bringing at least one caterpillar, and sometimes two or three,
so that probably this one pair of birds destroyed six or seven hundred
in the course of a single day. The destruction of the Blue-cap by
the farmer or gardener is an act of economical suicide. Well has the
author of the book of Ecclesiasticus written, ' all things are double
one against another, and GOD has made nothing imperfect.'
The ' Journal of a Naturalist' records the following:—I was
lately exceedingly pleased in witnessing the maternal care and intelligence
of this bird; for the poor thing had its young ones in the hole of
a wall, and the nest had been nearly all drawn out of the crevice
by the paw of a cat, and part of its brood devoured. In revisiting
its family, the bird discovered a portion of it remaining, though
wrapped up and hidden in the tangled moss and feathers of their bed,
and it then drew the whole of the nest back into the place from whence
it had been taken, unrolled and re-settled the remaining little ones,
fed them with the usual attentions, and finally succeeded in rearing
them. The parents of even this reduced family laboured with great
perseverance to supply its wants, one or other of them bringing a
grub, caterpillar, or some insect, at intervals of less than a minute
through the day, and probably in the earlier part of the morning more
frequently; but if we allow that they brought food to the hole every
minute for fourteen hours, and provided for their own wants also,
it will admit of perhaps a thousand grubs a day, for the requirements
of one, and that a diminished brood, and gives us some comprehension
of the infinite number requisite for the summer nutriment of our soft-billed
birds, and the great distances gone over by such as have young ones,
in their numerous trips from hedge to tree in the hours specified,
when they have full broods to support.'
Meyer renders the note of the Blue Tomtit by the words 'zit, zit,'
' tzitee,' and ' tsee, tsee, tsirr,' which is, 1 think, as near as
it can be approached; and shews that a comparison of it by one of
my schoolfellows to the words in the Latin Grammar ' me te se, praeter
que ne ve,' was far from being inapt, as in truth it is not, Macgillivray
gives us ' chica, chica, chee, chee,' as also ' chirr-r-r.' It has
also a sort of scream—a signal of alarm, and the hen bird, when
sitting on the nest, hisses at any enemy, and spits like a kitten,
ruffling up her feathers, at the same time. 'Many a young intruder,'
says Mr. Knapp, 'is deterred from prosecuting any farther search,
lest he should rouse the vengeance of some lurking snake or adder.'
In the spring of the year I have heard this bird utter a very pleasing
and decided song, though of weak sound. My brother, Beverley R. Morris,
Esq., M.D., has also related a similar instance in the ' Naturalist,'
volume ii., page 108.
The nest, which is composed of grass and moss, and lined with hair,
wool, and feathers, and is built in March or April, is usually placed
in a hole of a tree, about half a dozen or a dozen feet from the ground,
or even close to it. H. T. Tomlinson, Esq., has informed me of one
he found on the ground, near Ambleside. I have seen one myself near
the top of a thick quickset hedge, in my own garden, about four feet
from the ground. 'If the hole is small, the nest consists only of
a few feathers or tufts of hair: if large, the foundation is of moss,
grasses, and wool. The nest is well constructed.' One, containing
young birds, was found so late as October 10th., 1839, by the Rev.
George Jeans, in the Blowwell Holt, Tetney, in Lincolnshire. Frequently
a hole in a wall is made use of, sometimes the top of a pump, though
the bird may be continually disturbed, or the nest even in the first
instance destroyed by the action of the handle, the entrance being
the cleft for the handle to work in.
'At the residence of Mr. George Quinton, New Fishbourne, a Blue Titmouse,
(Parus caeruleus,) alias Tomtit, has selected the letter-box in the
front door for building its nest.' The following is related in the
'Yorkshire Gazette' of May 17th., 1856:—'In a box fixed on a
post, near the gardens at Thorpe Hall, near Bridlington, letters and
newspapers are deposited through a slit for the greater convenience
of the foot messenger, as he passes each way daily between Bridlington,
the post town, and the receiving house at Thwing. The lid is secured
by a lock and key, and although the box is opened four times every
day in the week, except Sunday, yet a pair of these tiny, pert, little
birds have made the slit a means of ingress and egress, and actually
built a nest within, in which the female has already begun to lay
Speaking of one instance of this kind, Bishop Stanley says, 'It happened
that during the time of building and laying the eggs, the pump had
not been in use; and when again set going, the female was sitting,
and it was naturally supposed that the motion of the pump handle would
drive her away. The young brood, however, were hatched safely, without
any other misfortune than the loss of a part of the tail of the sitting
bird, which was rubbed off by the friction of the pump handle.' And
again, 'We knew of another pair of Titmice, which, for several days
persevered in inserting, close upon the point of the handle, the materials
for a nest; though every time the handle was raised they were either
crushed or forced out, till the patience of the persevering little
builders was fairly exhausted.' The most extraordinary situation,
however, that I have heard or read of for the location of the nest
of this, or of any other species of bird, was within the jaws of the
skeleton of a man who had been executed and hung in chains for murder.
It would almost seem a realization of the fable of our childhood,
respecting a somewhat similar locality therein assigned to the nest
Mr. Hewitson records the following, communicated to him by Mr. Heysham,
of Carlisle:—'A few years ago, when upon an entomological excursion,
wishing to examine the decayed stump of a tree, which was broken to
pieces for that purpose, and the fragments dispersed to a considerable
distance by a severe blow, a Blue Titmouse was found sitting upon
fourteen eggs, in a small cavity of the root; and, notwithstanding
the above severe shock, she remained immovable, till forcibly taken
off the nest: sometimes, even if taken off, she will return.' Again,
'An earthen bottle was placed on the garden wall of Mrs. Chorley,
of Bolton, near Lancaster; in this a pair of Blue Titmice built their
nest, hatched their eggs, and reared their young. There was no cork
in the bottle, and the birds had no other way of entrance than through
the mouth; going up and down the neck of the bottle every time they
carried food to their young ones, all of which, ten in number, were
reared without accident, and made their escape unmolested through
the neck of the bottle. When they were fairly gone, the bottle was
taken down, and the old nest found within. The bottle was fifteen
inches deep, and the neck one inch in diameter. I am at a loss to
know how the birds could manage to ascend.' Mr. Thompson mentions
a similar case in an ornamental jar; and another, communicated by
Mr. Poole, in which the male used to feed the female through the neck
of the jar. The nest is also often placed under the eaves of houses,
the tiles of the roof or any suitable part of an out-of-doors building;
if in a tree, the outer passage leading into an inner apartment is
hollowed out by the bird itself in a truly marvellous manner, as smoothly
as if wrought by the hand of man: one has been known to build in the
end of a disused leaden pipe.
Mr. M. Saul has narrated in the 'Zoologist,' the following most singular
instance of something akin to reasoning in a case of the kind, if
indeed the motive was such as he has imagined:—'Two birds made
their appearance; one entered the hole, and appeared to be pecking
away at the wood inside, for as it managed to separate piece after
piece, it brought them to the other bird, which remained at the entrance,
and this last flew away with each piece, and carrying it to a distance
from the tree, dropped it on the middle of the road, as if to avoid
the detection which was almost sure to follow, if the chips had been
carelessly dropped at the foot of a tree in a frequented thoroughfare.'
In the 'Gloucestershire Chronicle' of June 17th., 1837, was recorded
the following:—'In the course of the present week, two men engaged
in sawing into planks an oak tree at Mr. Hunt's timber yard, near
the canal basin, found in a hole in the centre, the nest of a Blue
Tit, containing several eggs. The nest must have been in this situation,
it is supposed, for the last century, and when taken out was quite
wet. The surface of the tree was entirely sound, and there was no
appearance of a communication to this hidden cavity."
The same nest is frequently repaired from year to year: the Revs.
Andrew and Henry Matthews have known one resorted to for twelve successive
years. It is said, however, that if two broods are brought up in the
year, two different situations are chosen for the purpose: sometimes
two pairs will quarrel for the same situation.
The eggs are generally seven or eight or more in number, but have
been known as few as six, and as many as sixteen, and some have said
even eighteen or twenty; the usual number being from eight to twelve.
They are of a delicate pink white, more or less spotted, and most
so at the larger end, with clear rufous brown.
Male; weight, under half an ounce; length, four inches and a half;
bill, bluish grey or dusky, lighter at the edges, almost black at
the tip. Iris, dark brown; there is a bluish black streak before and
behind the eye, running, as it were, through it; forehead and sides
of the head, white, surrounded by a collar of deep blue, which meets
the streak from the eye. Grown, bright blue; a white band runs over
the eyes, and encircles the head; neck, in front, greenish yellow;
nape, deep blue, bluish white beneath; chin, deep blue, almost black.
Throat, deep blue, with a stripe of the same, almost black; breast,
yellow; a stripe of deep blue runs down the middle of it, below it
is nearly white. Back, greyish blue, with a tinge of green.
The wings reach to within an inch of the end of the tail, and expand
to the width of seven inches and three-quarters; greater wing coverts,
blue tipped with white, forming a band across the wings; lesser wing
coverts, light blue. Primaries, pale blue, blackish or greyish brown
on the inner webs, margined with whitish; the first less than half
the length of the second and eighth; the fourth and fifth about equal,
and longest; the third and sixth equal, and next in length. Secondaries,
bluish green, blackish brown on the inner webs; tertiaries, the same,
tipped with white. Tail, pale blue, slightly wedged, some of the outer
feathers brown on the inner webs and towards the tip, the outer with
its margin white; tail coverts, lighter than the back, and faintly
mottled with whitish. Legs and toes, bluish grey; claws, brownish.
The female resembles the male, but is a little smaller, and her colours
not so bright. Weight, three drachms; the breast has the blue stripe
not so well defined, and less prolonged, and both it and the yellow
fainter and less pure.
The young bird resembles the female, but the colours still duller,
and tinged with grey. Bill, light yellowish brown; the black streak
is indistinctly defined, being dull light bluish grey; over the eye
a dull yellow streak runs round the head. Forehead, dull yellow, sides
of the head the same; crown, dull light bluish grey; the ring on the
neck the same; throat, dull yellow. The streak down the breast also
obscure in the young male, and wanting in the female; the breast itself
dull yellow tinged with grey on the sides and lower down; back, light
green, with a grey tinge. Greater wing coverts, greyish blue, tipped
with yellow; lesser wing coverts, greyish blue; primaries, greyish
blue, edged narrowly with greyish white; secondaries, the same, edged
broadly with light green, and tipped with yellowish white; tertiaries,
greyish blue. Toes, dull bluish grey; claws, light yellowish brown.
At the first moult, in August, the bill is dark horn-colour, edged
with white; the sides of the head and the mark round the crown are
yellow, mottled with white; the crown, greenish, interspersed with
the coming blue feathers, and the dark streak through the eye and
collar dusky. There is a very great and striking dissimilarity in
the sizes of different individuals, so much so, as almost to make
one fancy that they might prove two species, and not one. Individuals
vary also in brightness of colouring, and at the time of moulting,
in the autumn, they often become of a curious dull and dingy colour,
as if in very ill health.
A white variety of this bird was observed at Northrepps, in the county
of Norfolk, in the year 1848, And another is recorded by the Revs.
Andrew and Henry Matthews, in their 'Catalogue of the Birds of Oxfordshire,
and its neighbourhood,' published in the 'Zoologist,' 'in which all
the feathers of the wing were more or less marked with large brown
spots,' and another by William Thompson, Esq., of Belfast, which was
sent to him by the Rev. G. Robinson, of Tanderagee. It was shot in
a wild state in the county of Armagh, in company with others of its
species. 'The entire under surface and the back are of the richest
canary yellow, with which the upper portion of the wings also is partially
tinged. The tail is pure white. The first few quills are white, the
succeeding ones pearl grey, but of a darker shade at the tips. The
head is singularly particoloured with white, blue, greyish brown,
and canary yellow. Bill, legs, and feet of a whitish hue.'
"Now up, now down,
And through and through
O'er trunk and branch
With prying beak He climbs."