Coal tit: the bird profiles

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I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

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Can you tell the difference between a coal tit and a great tit? And why would a bird be called a coal tit in the first place? Here’s everything you should know about the coal tit.

A coal tit
Coal tits are dark [Photo: Fabio Sacchi/ Shutterstock.com]

The coal tit (Periparus ater) is a widespread, native songbird that spends most of its time in dense, pine forests. Frequently confused with its bigger relative the great tit, coal tits are rather dark, simple birds, whose Latin name “ater” means “gloomy”. This is unfortunate because this little bird is in fact very sociable and lively, and has a delightful song. If you would like to find out more about this rather allusive tit, and get some great tips on attracting the songbird to your garden, look no further.

Coal tit: key facts

SizeAbout 10-11cm
WeightAbout 10g
Breeding seasonApril-July
LifespanApproximately 5 years
HabitatConiferous and mixed forests, parks and gardens
Food preferencesInsects and seeds
ThreatsDecline in natural habitat and food supply

How to recognise the coal tit

Coal tits are very small, portly birds with large heads. Needless to say, they are very cute! The back and wings of a coal tit are grey, their head is deep black and marked by snow white cheeks, and spots on the neck. In addition, coal tits have a small “hood” of black feathers, whilst their stomachs and flanks are dirty beige.

A coal tit perches on a branch
The coal tit is a rather small tit [Photo: John Navajo/ Shutterstock.com]

Unfortunately, it’s practically impossible to tell the difference between male and female coal tits. This is also true for coal tit chicks who look identical to their parents once they leave the nest and have reached their full size.

A coal tit feeds a young coal tit
Young coal tits look just like their parents [Photo: Pouakai Photos/ Shutterstock.com]

How to tell the difference between a coal tit and a great tit

At first glance, coal tits and great tits can be mistaken for one another. However, it is easy to spot the differences. Coal tits are much smaller than great tits and not nearly as colourful. What’s more, great tits are characterised by their bright yellow bellies, which are cut through the middle with a black stripe. A coal tit’s belly, on the other hand, is plain beige. They also lack the great tit’s blue tail and wing tips. And if you’re looking at coal tits in flight, you should be able to see the white spots on their neck, which their larger relatives lack.

A great tit
Great tits have a bright yellow underside [Photo: ihelgi/ Shutterstock.com]

How to recognise a coal tit egg

Coal tit eggs are about 1.5 centimetres in size, white-cream and covered with small, brown-red speckles. Female coal tits lay up to 12 eggs per brood in a nest of grass, moss and plant fibres, padded with animal hair and feathers.

Coal tit chicks hide in their nest
Coal tits breed in hollows and cavities [Photo: PhotoChur/ Shutterstock.com]

What is the perfect habitat for coal tits?

Coal tits love coniferous forests. Although they do visit mixed forests, parks and larger gardens, you will most likely spot them in and amongst the conifers. Be it lowlands or higher altitudes, coal tits are happy as long as there are conifers around!

Where do coal tits build their nests?

Coal tits are very creative nest builders. They are happy to use tree hollows, vacant squirrel nests, and even the burrows of mice or rabbits. The nest itself is made from grass, moss and plant fibres.

A coal tit collects nesting material
Coal tit collects nesting material [Photo: Steve Midgley/ Shutterstock.com]

When is breeding season for coal tits?

The breeding season for coal tits extends from April to July. Usually, coal tits raise up to 12 chicks once a year. The eggs are incubated for 13 to 16 days before the hatchlings are fed in the nest for up to three weeks. After this initial period, the young chicks will make their first attempt to fly the nest, still supported by their parents for a few weeks before they are independent.

Where do coal tits spend winter?

Coal tits spend winter at home. They tend to group together, defying the cold air, and are known to join their close relatives, the great tit and blue tit, in the search for food.

A coal tit perches amongst red berries and snow
The coal tit is not afraid of winter [Photo: clarst5/ Shutterstock.com]

What does a coal tit’s song sound like?

Coal tits have a delightful, two-syllable song that is very similar to the call of the great tit. The difference: it is faster, higher pitched, and prettier, fitting perfectly with the coal tit’s stature.

Help the coal tit!

Coal tits will happily visit gardens as a guest. To find out how you can support this little bird during winter and breeding season, read on!

What do coal tits eat?

Coal tits are omnivores, enjoying both seeds and small insects. In spring and during breeding season, they tend towards small insects that are found in trees and leaves. While in winter, coal tits feed on larch, beech and fir seeds. And it is in winter that you are most likely to spot the coal tit at a feeding station, delighting in bird food, grains or sunflower seed. Fat balls are a delicacy for the small songbirds.

Note: Want to know how to build your own bird feeder? Have a look at our article!

Which bird boxes are suitable for coal tits?

If you want to offer a home to coal tits in your garden, it is easy to build your own bird box or purchase one. Standard nesting boxes are best for coal tits; mostly enclosed, with a small entrance hole of about 25mm in width. These boxes are very similar to what the coal tit would make for itself in the wild.

A coal tit enters a birdhouse
Coal tits prefer enclosed birdhouses [Photo: Miriam Doerr Martin Frommherz/ Shutterstock.com]

How can I support coal tits even more?

In addition to birdseed, it is always a good idea to offer garden birds with a bath. This is particularly important on hot days. And there is no need to be fancy – a shallow bowl is perfectly fine. The most important thing is to keep it clean, in order to prevent the spread of disease. The risk of virus transmission in birds increases at high temperatures, which is why you should ideally clean bird baths daily in summer.

In breeding season, coal tits require an ample supply of insects. Creating an insect-friendly garden is therefore not only good for the insects, but also for the coal tit.

Another small songbird that shows its face in winter and loves conifers is the goldcrest. Get to know this songbird in our next bird profile.

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