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Great tits: still murderous, rapacious, flesh-rending predators!


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Dead redpolls, victims of tit attacks! Photo by Lassi Kujala.

Thanks to Ville Sinkkonen, I’ve just learnt of this Finnish news article: it reports wildlife photographer Lassi Kujala’s discovery of more than ten Common redpolls Carduelis flammea killed by Great tits Parus major. A Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella was killed as well. I understand that tits are called titmice in some parts of the world. So, seriously, would you call this species the ‘Great titmouse’? Well, I’m sticking with tits, thank you very much. Tits all the way.

Anyway, the (brief) article explains how this is an astonishing discovery, representing something remarkable that might be a first. I don’t want to downplay the achievements of a passerine that’s capable of killing numerous redpolls (and it isn’t clear whether we’re seeing the behaviour of a single individual, a set of individuals acting alone, or a co-operating social group [UPDATE: the killings apparently represent the actitivies of two or three Great tits]), but let’s note that this sort of thing (that is, the killing and eating of other passerines by the Great tit) is actually not in the least bit novel, nor unusual, for this species.

Great tit, photographed in Czech Republic. Image in public domain.

Great tits mostly feed on insects and seeds. In fact, during the winter, about 90% of the northern European Great tit diet consists of plant material*. It’s powerful and formidable for its size, able to use its bill to break into hazelnuts and acorns. It’s also an accomplished raider of caches created by other passerines, in particular those of the smaller Marsh tit Poecile palustris and Coal tit Periparus ater**; unlike these species, the Great tit does not [in general] hoard food. It’s also a facultative tool-user, reported on occasion to use conifer needles to winkle insect larvae out of bark (Gosler 1993). And it’s also a part-time scavenger, its habit of picking at the bones of hoofed mammals being well known (e.g., Selva et al. 2005). Even better, historical records tell of them eating the fat and other tissues of hanged people. I was reading about this just the other day but can no longer remember which book it was in…

Great tits (probable female on left; probably male on right), photo by Shirley Clarke, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

* As is the case with so many ‘European’ birds, the Great tit has a huge range that encompasses much of Asia as well as northern Africa. It inhabits tropical woodland and forest as well as the habitats of the cool north.

** You’ll note that I’m using the new taxonomy for tits. Parus of tradition warrants splitting up (due to deep genetic divergences and a lot of disparity) and is also paraphyletic, given the discovery that Pseudopodoces is deeply nested within it.

Rather less well known is that the Great tit sometimes uses its relatively large size and powerful bill to kill smaller passerines, and indeed Barnes (1975) noted that “A topic of some interest to earlier writers was the alleged murderous tendency of great tits” (p. 112). While some of the accounts I’m discussing here do involve predation on other species, note that others involve competition for nesting sites. Barnes described two or three cases where Pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca were “found dead with smashed skulls in nest-boxes taken over by great tits” (p. 112), and also referred to occasions when Great tits had attacked and killed birds that were caught in traps, nets or cages. Caris (1958) reported a case in which an English Great tit was seen flying away with a dead Goldcrest Regulus regulus (one of Europe’s smallest passerines: it may weigh just 5g). It had been killed by a peck to the back of the head. Its eyes were pecked out and its skull mangled.

Even better, Howard Saunders (1899) wrote that “The Great Titmouse will attack small and weakly birds, splitting their skulls with its powerful beak in order to get at their brains; and it has even been known to serve a Bat in this manner”.

In recent years, the killing and eating of bats by this species became internationally known after Estók et al. (2010) published a paper on the subject in Biology Letters. They reported how the tits were finding hibernating bats in cavities in caves, bashing the bat’s heads in, and eating them… or, rather, eating their brains. It was excellent that Estók et al. (2010) were able to document (and photograph) this in such detail, but bat-killing isn’t a newly discovered bit of behaviour. And if you know your recently published zoology books you may perceive the link between the brain-eating behaviour  of Great tits and the title of a recently published and reportedly excellent book. In fact, the text you’ve just read is mostly recycled from a Tet Zoo ver 2 article published back in 2009. If we look at the comments there… hmm, is this, perchance, the genesis of the Zombie Tit Meme? I don’t know, since I haven’t yet seen the book concerned: Becky Crew’s Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish, and Other Weird Animals (2012, New South Books).

Great tit interacting aggressively with a Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) - not a predatory interaction, however. Image by Ville Sinkkonen.

While I’m here, some announcements. I’ve recently launched a site – darrennaish.wordpress.com – that serves as a repository for most (that is, as many as I have) of my publications. Do check it out. And John Conway and I recently launched the Tetrapod Zoology Podcast. Ep 1 – an experimental prequel – is now available, and we’re making this a regular thing. Tune in for Tet Zoo-themed discussion, shout-outs and general nonsense.

Back to tits. They’re actually of controversial position within the passerine radiation, seemingly not grouping within any of the four major clades within Passerida. For more on that and other passerine-themed issues at Tet Zoo, see…

Refs – -

Barnes, J. A. G. 1975. The Titmice of the British Isles. David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Caris, J. L. 1958. Great tit killing and carrying goldcrest. British Birds 51, 355.

Estók, P., Zsebők, S. & Siemers, B. M. 2010. Great tits search for, capture, kill and eat hibernating bats. Biology Letters 6, 59-62.

Gosler, A. G. 1993. The Great Tit. Hamlyn, London.

Saunders, H. 1899. An Illustrated Manual of British Birds. Gurney & Jackson, London.

Selva, N., Jędrzejewska, B., Jędrzejewski, W. & Wajrak, A. 2005. Factors affecting carcass use by a guild of scavengers in European temperate woodland. Canadian Journal of Zoology 83, 1590-1601.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. TheologyGeology 2:21 pm 02/6/2013

    On a similar note, I once watched a Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli) here in Arizona eating leftover strips of meat from a roadkilled elk, after Coyotes and Ravens had finished with the carcass, and they are much smaller and dantier than Great Tits. I wonder if this scavenging behavior is more common among members of this family than we think.

    Link to this
  2. 2. naishd 2:25 pm 02/6/2013

    I just noticed that the larger dead bird at bottom left of the photo at top is not a redpoll: must be the Yellowhammer I mentioned in the article.

    Darren

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  3. 3. Halbred 3:25 pm 02/6/2013

    Well, I DO love great tits.

    More seriously, that first picture of a great tit looks EXCEPTIONALLY similar to our Alaskan black-capped chickadee. The only real difference seems to be body color–the black-cap is yellowish-orange while the great tit is greenish. Makes me wonder how many species of Poecile look fundamentally similar apart from color.

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  4. 4. Stevo Darkly 4:09 pm 02/6/2013

    Having both “great tits” and “murderous” in the heading is probably going to drawn in some Google-using “Game of Thrones” fans by accident.

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  5. 5. vdinets 4:53 pm 02/6/2013

    The fact that smaller passerines (i. e. goldcrests) don’t show much fear of great tits and regularly occur in mixed flocks with them suggests that such predation is very rare. Maybe only a small subset of the population is predatory? Something like elephant-hunting lions? It is considered common knowledge among Russian zoologists and hunters (but probably isn’t based on published data) that some brown bears are much more carnivorous than the majority of the population. The same has been claimed for walruses, but, again, I am not aware of any serious research publications. Would be really cool if it was the beginning of sympatric speciation…

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  6. 6. vdinets 5:00 pm 02/6/2013

    …like in killer whales (sorry, part of the sentence got cut off somehow)

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  7. 7. RoryD 6:22 pm 02/6/2013

    This article brings back memories, as the ver.2 article was the first tetzoo post I read on a modern species.

    There is another reference to murderous great tits in the popular literature in Couzen’s and Hume’s book ‘Garden Birds Confidential’ complete with a rather amusing illustration of what appears to be a great tit riding on a non-plussed looking viviparous lizard.

    “like in killer whales” well armed with the knowledge of this behaviour, they do look rather orca like.

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  8. 8. naishd 6:53 pm 02/6/2013

    Thanks for comments so far, everyone. You might be interested to know that io9′s Robert Gonzalez has written his own take on this article: check it out here.

    Halbred (comment 3): the Great tit is, I would say, only superficially similar to the Black-capped chickadee. The latter – like all chickadees – has a proportionally massive head; it’s rather smaller as well. As you note, it also lacks the yellowish underparts of (European and north Asian) Great tits.

    Darren

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  9. 9. naishd 6:59 pm 02/6/2013

    vdinets (comment 5): an interesting hypothesis (viz, that only some Great tits are dangerous to other passerines). While that’s plausible, I think it might be a resource-dependent thing. In other words, Great tits might be safe to be around (if you’re a smaller passerine) when food is available, but their behaviour might change when conditions become harsh. Most (but not all) of the bird- and bat-eating accounts come from wintertime.

    Darren

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  10. 10. vdinets 7:09 pm 02/6/2013

    Darren: Could be… although it would be difficult to find hybernating bats in summer :-)

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  11. 11. naishd 7:15 pm 02/6/2013

    Indeed :) But there are still bats hiding in caves, tree holes and other cavities at those times.

    Darren

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  12. 12. John Harshman 10:10 pm 02/6/2013

    No way, if looking for an alternate name for the great tit, would I call it a titmouse. If anything, it’s a great chickadee. Titmice are Baeolophus, and they have crests.

    I’m holding out for parids being attached to Sylvioidea at some point. There’s weak but suggestive evidence to that effect already. But clearly there are some short branches in that neighborhood. Regulids are even more of a problem. But anyway, they’re all just passerines.

    I will be more careful around great tits in the future. Anything on the predatory habits of Pseudopodoces?

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  13. 13. Dartian 1:27 am 02/7/2013

    Darren:
    Rather less well known is that the Great tit sometimes uses its relatively large size and powerful bill to kill smaller passerines

    Perhaps it’s less well known today, but it was certainly pretty common knowledge among older generations of aviculturists (such as Alfred Brehm of Brehms Tierleben fame). They cautioned against letting tits (of any species, but particularly the great tit) share a cage with smaller or even similar-sized birds, as these would surely get attacked and killed. They also noted the great tit’s brain-eating habits.

    Barnes described two or three cases where Pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca were “found dead with smashed skulls in nest-boxes taken over by great tits”

    Such instances are probably not primarily predatory, though. Great tits and pied flycatchers compete intensely over suitable nest sites, which are often in short supply (see, e.g., Slagsvold, 1975).

    Great tit interacting aggressively with a Blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) – not a predatory interaction, however.

    Yeah, blue tits are small, cute and cuddly, but also feisty. :) They are no pushovers and will often stand their ground successfully against the great tit.

    Reference:
    Slagsvold, T. 1975. Competition between the great tit Parus major and the pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca in the breeding season. Ornis Scandinavica 6, 179-190.

    Link to this
  14. 14. naishd 4:15 am 02/7/2013

    Regulids (comment 12): there are published phylogenies that include them in (a version of) Corvida…. something else I’ve always planned to blog about.

    Dartian (comment 13): I hope it’s clear that, in the article here, I mixed accounts of Great tits killing other passerines due to nest competition with predatory accounts. However, maybe it’s not clear enough – I might go and edit. Shame there are no photos of Great tits carrying off goldcrests or anything like that.

    Darren

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  15. 15. Jerzy v. 3.0. 4:30 am 02/7/2013

    There are several quite different behaviours and motivations here. First, many tit species will feed on carrion. That is where common European habit of hanging fat balls for birds comes from. I even remember nice footage from BBC Planet Earth which momentarily shows Siberian Tit pecking at carcass of a deer killed by Amur Leopard.

    There are also accounts that Great Tits will peck at incapacitated birds. I heard only of Great Tits doing this. I know another second-hand account where Great Tits eaten brains of Goldcrests caught in mist-nets for ringing.

    Competition for nest holes among small songbirds is quite different thing. It can be intense locally in young, recently planted forest plantations and parks in Europe. There are many accounts that different small hole-nesting birds like tits, nuthatches, redstarts, pied flycatchers, starlings, sparrows etc. fought and occassionally killed each other. Interestingly, this whole behavior is completely artifical. In old-growth forests, which resemble native woodland in Europe, nest cavities are in excess supply, and what limits tits and similar birds is nest predation by martens and woodpeckers.

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  16. 16. naishd 4:50 am 02/7/2013

    With reference to comment 15, I should probably make it clearer in the article that not all the behaviour discussed here is predatory, even if the predatory behaviour forms the focus of the piece.

    Great tits feeding on mist-netted Goldcrests: last time you mentioned this, you said the mist-netted birds were Long-tailed tits.

    Darren

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  17. 17. Lars Dietz 7:39 am 02/7/2013

    Interesting article! One correction: In the photo labeled “Great tit females”, the bird on the right seems to be a male based on the broadness of the black stripe on the breast.
    I still don’t think the division of the genus Parus was necessary (other genera are similarly diverse, and Pseudopodoces could just be classified as a highly aberrant species of Parus), but then I work on invertebrates. By the way, if you use the new parid classification, why do you use Carduelis instead of Acanthis flammea? The genus Carduelis is polyphyletic, as is Serinus, and both genera form a clade within which Loxia (crossbills) is also included (it’s sister to Acanthis, see Zuccon et al. 2012).
    Halbred: we also have some Poecile species in Europe (Marsh Tit, P. palustris, and Willow Tit, P. montanus), which look much more similar to the Black-capped Chickadee than the Great Tit does. The Willow Tit was actually considered conspecific with the Black-capped Chickadee by some in the past.
    Darren: On regulids being corvidans, are you referring to Spicer & Dunipace (2004)? I think more recent analyses, with more genes and more taxon sampling, have placed them firmly within Passerida, although their position within the group is still poorly resolved.
    Something else: I’ve always wondered about the similarity of the coloration of the Great Tit and the male Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis). The latter lacks the black breast stripe, and the white on its throat is not divided, but otherwise their plumage looks almost exactly the same. They’re not closely related, and they don’t occur together (so it’s not mimicry), so it’s probably coincidence, but it’s still astonishing.

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  18. 18. naishd 8:07 am 02/7/2013

    Lars: thanks loads for these comments. I hadn’t seen Zuccon et al. (2012) and was assuming that Acanthis was still lumped in to Cardeulis (damn, knew I should have checked this). On regulids being included in Corvida, I’ve just looked and can’t find the text I produced on this… Spicer & Dunipace (2004) may have been the work I had in mind, but may not. It’s one of those things that I certainly don’t regard as probably right (I know that more recent studies have placed regulids firmly within Passerida), but still neat enough to be worthy of mention and discussion.

    Darren

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  19. 19. vdinets 8:32 am 02/7/2013

    I posted a link to this article in my blog, and got a comment from a Ukrainian ornithologist (I only know him by his nickname). He reported tha while banding birds, he once accidentally put a great tit in a bag with two red-backed shrikes. Ten minutes later he realized his mistake and looked into the bag, expecting to find the tit half-eaten. Instead, it was fine, but both shrikes had all their facial feathers torn out, and were bleeding around the eyes.

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  20. 20. Jerzy v. 3.0. 8:59 am 02/7/2013

    @16
    Did I? Oops, cannot be sure at the moment – I will probably best try finding the original person. Anyway, there could be more observations of this in literature.

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  21. 21. David Marjanović 9:00 am 02/7/2013

    The “mouse” part of “titmouse” should be related to German Meise, “parid”.

    The h in “yellowhammer” is interesting. Is it a 19th-century hypercorrectivism? In German, Emberiza is Ammer (while “hammer” as in “nail” is Hammer).

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  22. 22. naishd 10:07 am 02/7/2013

    vdinets (comment 19): wow, great anecdote! I don’t suppose your colleague took a photo? (I know things are different now that we’re in the digital age, but it’s because of things like this that I >always< have a [small, pocket-sized] camera with me).

    The name Yellowhammer (comment 21). I checked Francesca Greenoak's British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature (1997, Helm/A&C Black). As always with the history of common names, things are really complicated, but ‘Ammer’, ‘Yellow Amber’ and ‘Yellow Omber’ are all local names from the UK. She also says that it “seems likely that the Anglo-Saxon Amore actually meant Yellowhammer and that over the centuries the memory of the original meaning was lost and the prefix ‘yellow’ added, making the bird literally a ‘Yellow-yellowhammer’” (p. 215).

    Darren

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  23. 23. John Harshman 11:18 am 02/7/2013

    Regulids (comment 12): there are published phylogenies that include them in (a version of) Corvida

    Say what? I see that Spicer & Dunipace has been cited, but are there others?

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  24. 24. urogallus 4:57 pm 02/7/2013

    Greetings from Finland! Tits sure can be aggressive, and strange as it may seem, the blue tits often can hold their own against or even chase away the great tits. Also european pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca) often wins competition over nestbox against a great tit. So they are not unbeatable.

    The scavenging ways of the great tits are well known in Finland: great tit in finnish is talitiainen, literally ‘tallow tit’.

    Btw. Last summer I saw red squirrel eating an adult great tit. While red squirrel is a well-known raider of birdnests, I haven’t heard about predation of adult birds. Any idea how common/rare that kind of behaviour is?

    Thanks for your blog!

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  25. 25. vdinets 8:49 pm 02/7/2013

    urogallus: in Chuvashia (a region on Volga River) red squirrels are known to kill adult and fledgling common swifts in nestboxes. Here are some gory photos: http://birdchuvashia.livejournal.com/50699.html

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  26. 26. niko B 2:17 pm 02/9/2013

    Hey! New commenter here…
    I just wanted you to give a heads-up on some new events regarding the murderous Great tits. The original photographer, Lassi Kujala, has gotten video footage of the/a tit attacking a redpoll:
    http://www.iltasanomat.fi/kotimaa/art-1288538750341.html

    Kujala also mentions in the article the attacking tit’s behaviour: before striking, it moves slowly above the feeding place with ruffed neck feathers and hanging wings.

    Also, there’s perhaps a mention of this article in the end of the report. No specific references though…

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  27. 27. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:11 am 02/10/2013

    “tit’s behaviour: before striking, it moves slowly above the feeding place with ruffed neck feathers and hanging wings.”

    It is typical dominance/threat display of Great Tit. I see it often at my feeder where Great and Blue Tits chase each other. Maybe predation started when hungry Great Tits tried to chase Redpoll from the feeder?

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  28. 28. Jerzy v. 3.0. 7:25 am 02/10/2013

    I heard another story of Great Tits. In Russian winters, apparently, people quite often store some food on the windowsill. Great Tits learned to raid this food.

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  29. 29. rafatosi 2:38 pm 02/13/2013

    It is also common knowledge that the Rufous-browed Peppershrike (Cyclarhis gujanensis) has the same behaviour of eating the brain of other passerines, although I do not know if there is any literature on this.

    I have also heard of the Chalked-browed Mockingbird (Mimus saturninus) eating the fat off hanging animal carcasses. And seen this personally (I think I might have taken a bad photo) done by the Monk Parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus).

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  30. 30. AvistarBrasil 8:51 am 02/14/2013

    Have you seen this video?? Is a choking video of a Tit killing a bird… http://www.iltasanomat.fi/kotimaa/art-1288538750341.html

    Link to this
  31. 31. SarahRoseStiles 2:37 am 03/2/2013

    Question:

    If these birds eat the brains of rabid bats, I suppose they’d consume the rabies virus…..and….?

    What then?

    Is that why they’re like vampires?

    Link to this

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