A name for an independent spirit

Outdoor Living

SPRING SONG With lengthening days, the Great Tit’s song becomes strong, his eye becomes bright, his plumage crisp and neat.

Country Sights and Sounds
Michael Kingdon

So much have I heard the ‘Zee Zee’ morning song of the great tit, it has become less of a ‘time to get up’ and more of a lullaby. I could lie there and listen, drift into dream-filled sleep and awaken once more to that incessant calling.
He cares nothing for the clock, but stirs from his mossy roost as the light thrills his voice into song. The love of his heart is near, though presently coy. With lengthening days his eye becomes bright, his plumage crisp and neat. His little black legs hold him aright, ’til those wings carry him to the crab tree, then to honeysuckle twine where he likes to sit and preen, no doubt with full knowledge that his bride to be is looking on from afar.
He has his eye on the box the blue tits used last year, though he has yet to look inside. For now he seeks just his mate. In the frost of only weeks before there were more of his kind than any small garden could possibly accommodate. Had there been some kind of duel, perhaps a sing-off to see who must leave and who might remain? If so, I had missed it. Besides, it is early yet. Further cold will force family groups back together, and who knows which individual will emerge as king the next time around?
I struggle to find a name for him. To the scientist he is Parus major, to the garden ornithologist simply Great Tit, but to me he is something else. For one thing, he is my neighbour. More, he shares my garden and, for all he knows, my food. He knows me as Benefactor, a bringer of gifts, of fat balls and peanuts, of bread fried in lard, though maintains his suspicion that perhaps the attention I bestow has an underlying, ulterior motive.
The food, the bowl of tepid water when the frost froze the pond, the little house where he wants to build his nest, all together have failed to win him over. He is no robin! A handful of worms would leave that bird flattered into easy friendship. Nor a thrush that would learn to feed at the foot of the spade, not he!
No, he maintains his independent spirit, his pride, and only condescends to feed upon my offerings once I have retreated the required distance. But I shall win yet, for the nesting box has within its walls a tiny camera, so that whenever I wish I can peer into his secret world and watch his family life unfold.
But a name.
He already has many, most of which reflect his physical characteristics. In the English midlands his cheek of brightest, purest white earns him the moniker Ox-eye.  In parts of Scotland he becomes Big ox-eye. Black-headed Bob is his Devonshire name; Black-capped Lolly is used in the north of England. In Irish he is Meantán mór, although I can scarcely stand at the garden wall and call him that, not with Mrs B doing the rounds.
Writing in the journal ‘Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology’, ecologist K Norris noted the tendency for female great tits to be drawn to those males that displayed brighter yellow breast feathers, and even related this to greater breeding success.
As if such were needed at all! When her time comes she will lay ten eggs. She might lay 12, or as many as 15. Then she will be sorry, with a dozen hungry mouths to feed.
Like many other small birds, the great-tit pair, when they finally become such, time their breeding period to coincide with the first flush of spring caterpillars. When the chicks are small, so is their prey. At three weeks of age the brood will be ready to flee the nest. By that time, each one of those caterpillars that have so far escaped will make a tasty mouthful on its own.
There remains an unfortunate caveat with bringing such a large family into the world. Away in the woods, the sparrowhawk pair also time their own reproduction. It is not caterpillars their own offspring will want, but small birds such as clumsy, inexperienced baby great tits that know nothing more than to sit on a branch and chime noisily to be fed.
There, that’s it. I have a name. Tintinnabulum: a wind chime or little bell. Tintin for short. Silly thing.

Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.