Tomtit—Brilliant Bandit of the Bird World
BY “AWAKE!” CORRESPONDENT IN THE BRITISH ISLES
AS HOUSEHOLDERS in Britain stoop to take in the morning milk, they may find they have been raided. Yes, the cream plundered from the milk bottles! Tomtit, that brilliant bandit of the bird world, has been at it again.
Bold and agile, a blue titmouse knows what it wants and will tilt itself precariously into a milk bottle to drink down an inch or two of cream. But how does this feathered bandit get to the milk? Milk caps are no great problem. When thick, waxed cardboard disks were used to seal milk bottles, it seemed to be secure and (one would have thought) beakproof. But tomtit patiently peeled it away layer by layer.
Then came the foil cap. But it too failed to stop the high-powered, chisellike beak of tomtit. Stones placed on top are moved with cheeky impudence. Covering milk bottles with cloths has also failed to protect them.
But if the housewife has occasional problems, the milkman has them too. There are reports that flights of tomtits trail milk carts down the streets, just as gulls follow the plow, and open bottle tops while the milkman is busy with his deliveries.
Now it seems that tomtit is exercising a bad influence on feathered associates. A milkman on his rounds reported that on several occasions robins with their long bills have followed up and drunk milk from bottles conveniently opened for them by the much smaller blue tits. Tomtit leads and others follow. It is a fact that eleven other species of birds are known to have jumped on the milk wagon, so to speak.
And what next? Why, a correspondent to The Times vouched for the following: “A fox discovered by a neighbour when she went to fetch the morning milk was sitting on its haunches in the woodland brambles intently watching the blue tits prizing the lid off one of the bottles, and, no doubt, if it had not been disturbed it would have waited until they had finished the job, and then have had a drink.”
But tomtit has a craving not only for cream. An ingredient of putty is also to tomtit’s taste. Building operations to finish a bungalow were once held up when a nearby wood disgorged its large population of blue tits; the putty-eating spree that followed caused every pane of glass to fall out.
A Look at the “Bandit” and Its Behavior
And what is this feathered bandit like? The blue tit is one of the most beautiful of the small birds found in Britain. Many a person, seeing for the first time a bird poised to make a ‘bottle-killing,’ has mistaken London’s commonest tit for a foreign bird perhaps escaped from some aviary. For in flight, the cobalt-blue cap and wings, white cheeks and yellow underparts do make dazzling streaks of color that cannot fail to captivate the eye.
Perhaps tomtit has become an adroit specialist in the art of bottle opening due to its ability to learn tricks. Says the book Birds of the World: “Titmice are the most adaptable and teachable of the very small birds . . . the tricks tame titmice can be taught are amazing.” For example, the book states that in Japan the varied titmouse is used by fortune-tellers. At a command, the bird hops to its perch, takes a coin from the fingers, drops it into a box, opens the door of a miniature shrine and pulls out a piece of paper, even unwrapping it.
Thus blue tits seem capable of learning by trial-and-error methods. Writes bird biologist J. C. Welty of Beloit College, Wisconsin: “Such pilfering of milk from man-made bottles can scarcely be inborn behavior.” And as bird expert Kenneth Graham writes: “If intelligence is defined as the ability to see connections and to profit from past experience, then it has to be conceded that the tits possess this attribute to a greater extent than has hitherto been thought possible in studies of bird behaviour.”
Since blue tits’ natural habitat is the woodland, their incursion deep into the heart of a great metropolis is all the more remarkable. Their inborn expertise enables them both to exist and to multiply in the dreary and comparatively treeless areas of a throbbing city.
And their choice of nesting sites in the big city also shows ability to try almost anything. For their nesting sites are typically unpredictable: the spare wheel of a car, letter boxes, drainpipes, streetlamps, old pumps, and even in the overcoat pockets of a scarecrow placed beside a row of peas especially to frighten off—did you guess?—blue tits!
A Desired Bird Despite Banditry
And how does the public in general view this bird of so many talents? Despite the pilfering of cream, nothing approaching a public outcry emerges, no great feelings of outrage. To the contrary, something akin to admiration underlies personal accounts of bird banditry.
Thus though these little birds have been making a nuisance of themselves at times, bird lovers still dangle morsels in a garden to get a visit from this small dandy of the feathered world. Tidbits loved by blue tits include cheese, bacon rind, peanuts threaded on a wire, seeds and the half coconut. In fact, tomtit is really one of Britain’s favorite garden birds. It is greatly appreciated for its engaging antics such as hanging upside down to get at a suspended half coconut.
Another reason tomtit is a desired bird, despite its banditry, is that it serves man beneficially by consuming great quantities of insects. One pair of birds were seen to make eighty visits an hour to their nest. Allowing for necessary breaks, Mr. and Mrs. Tomtit were fetching 1,500 meals a day, or 10,000 or so a week consisting of the grubs of apple blossom weevil, and sawfly maggots. Blue tits then are a cost-free labor force for ridding fruit trees of pests. Unfortunately, thoughtless removal of trees and indiscriminate use of pesticides compel blue tits to look elsewhere for their meals.
Because of their banditry, some have called blue tits “mad.” But a reader wrote the following to a newspaper editor in defense of the bird bandits: “With the growth of urban areas and the reduction of fertile areas—often chemically treated—would it be too simple to suggest that it is we whose mad behaviour has affected the tits?”
Solving the Problem, Enjoying the Bird
But what to do about blue tit’s milk-filching habits? Getting to the milk before tomtit does is one answer to the problem. The trouble is, the air strikes take place with stunning speed. Within seconds of delivery, the feathered bandits will swoop down, as they did on a consignment of milk to a school in Merstham, Surrey, where more than 50 out of 300 milk bottles were opened before the schoolkeeper could get to them.
Wisely remember that to a bird—food is where he finds it. So, with the kindly cooperation of your milkman, hide the milk in a stout box with a heavy lid.
The blue tit is but one of an almost infinite variety of living wonders, the handiwork of an all-wise Creator. From a bird lover comes this fine tribute to tomtit and to his Maker: “It makes one very humble to contemplate these clever, busy, happy little creatures, so exquisite in form, line and color, so perfect in movement, so purposeful, so sure in all their ways. What is man’s handiwork compared to these?”