Written by supporter Ken Welch

Despite it being early February, I was pleased to notice a pair of Blue Tits paying a lot of attention to our garden nest box. The box is one that our grandchildren made at a Wiltshire Wildlife Trust event in Melksham.

Although we always look forward to Blue Tits raising their families in our garden every year, their arrival this year has been a relief. 2020 was different in many ways and the enforced lockdown period meant that people had more time to spend appreciating their gardens and its wildlife. By the beginning of May, and from a safe distance, I had been watching and photographing the pair of Blue Tits that had nested in our box and observed the parents flying in and out every few minutes with food, clearly indicating that the young had finally hatched.

Blue tit with a caterpillar as food for the young. Credit: Ken Welch 

I paid a casual interest to the box but my attention was drawn to a tremendous commotion, and when I looked more closely, I was surprised to see a little face at the door calling very loudly. It was quickly joined by a second face, equally vocal, and I became convinced that the young birds must be getting ready to leave the box and fly.

I retired to the house to watch, camera in hand, and waited but was surprised that the parents were not returning to feed them. I continued to watch for several hours but there was no sign of the parents and the calling was becoming more desperate. At this point I reviewed the pictures I had taken over the previous weeks and realised it was the same parent bird in all of them. For some reason, possibly a predator, this had become a single parent family and my suspicion was that the surviving parent bird had now failed to return, either through exhaustion or predation, and the young birds were now starving.

Young blue tit calling for food. Credit: Ken Welch

My immediate reaction was to turn to the internet and search for advice on what to do but was disappointed when all I could find was the message “do not interfere.” In my case, however, “do not interfere” was not an option as, without me doing something, these baby Blue Tits would not survive.

As the young birds had now been without food for many hours, my first priority was to get some food inside them.

By luck, my wife had a quantity of mince in the freezer and while this was defrosting, I made a pair of tweezers out of two wooden lolly sticks, tapered at one end, and held together at the other end with an elastic band and a piece of match wedged between them to form a pivot. I then sliced up the raw mince to be even smaller and, after making a final check that the parent bird was still not around, I went to the nest box.

The young birds were still calling continuously but the calls were weaker. I slowly lifted the lid and peered inside. There, huddled together in a tiny nest, were three young birds, fully feathered but motionless and shocked into silence from the sudden arrival of bright light. I wasn’t sure how to persuade them to take food from the tweezers but, hoping for the best, I took a small piece of meat and gently lowered it into the box. The reaction was immediate as the three birds suddenly stood up, calling loudly with beaks wide open.

Hungry young Blue Tits waiting for food. Credit: Ken Welch.

It took about ten minutes of continuous feeding to satisfy their hunger after which, as if by mutual agreement, they quietly settled down together. I was pleased with the success so far and, recognising that this had bought them some time, I immediately closed the lid and withdrew back to the house to watch again for any sign of the parent bird.

I also began to ponder how often to feed them, if they need water, how to teach them to fly. I was lucky in that being retired and in the middle of a lockdown I had plenty of time to spare to look after the orphans, so throughout the rest of the day I watched the box in the fading hope that the parent would come back.

The next morning, using fresh mince, I gave them their first feed and continued throughout the day at one hour intervals. 

This process continued for two days but on the third day I was convinced that the parent bird wasn’t coming back, so I removed the box from its location in a tree and placed it in my greenhouse where it was easier to access and they would be warmer overnight. I left the door open during the day for ventilation in case it got too hot but fixed a wire mesh frame across the door to keep predators out. I also cleaned out the nest box and placed a soft piece of furry fabric as a nest liner so that I could remove it every evening and replace it with a freshly washed one.

Ken feeding one of the young Blue Tits.

The feeding regime continued for the next few days with hourly feeds or sometimes an hour and a half between but, although they were obviously getting stronger and more active, they still seemed content to stay in the box. Then early one morning, when I went to open the lid, I found that the box was empty. It initially took me by surprise but after looking around I found two sitting on a bucket on the greenhouse staging and the third one sitting on a cross beam in the roof. This one could clearly fly.

The young Blue Tits after leaving the nest box. Credit: Ken Welch.

I brought them all back to the box for feeding and then closed the lid but when I returned later I found all three of them sitting up in the roof enjoying the sun. The problem of teaching them to fly was no longer an issue.

Blue Tits having flown to the roof. Credit: Ken Welch.

They seemed very happy with the diet of mince and mealworms and I was even more pleased when, instead of simply taking the food and swallowing it, they began to take the food and hold it down on their perch with one foot while they pecked pieces off it. This pecking was a good sign that they were learning to feed themselves and this was confirmed when I brought a rose stem to them which was covered in greenfly and they happily pecked each one off.

Another concern that I had was whether or not their familiarity with me would make them too trustful of people but the answer came when my daughter visited one day and I took her into the greenhouse with me. The birds instantly became very wary and wouldn’t even come to me while she was there. Their behaviour was completely different but as soon as my daughter left, the birds immediately flew back to me. 

Image credit: Ken Welch

Although I was enjoying watching their development and photographing them in a controlled environment, I recognised that they needed to be introduced to the wild as soon as possible to reduce their dependence on me and learn the harsh reality of survival. 

One morning when the weather was fine, I put the birds in their nest box and took it down the garden to a tree which had a good, leafy canopy providing protection from sun, wind and rain. Straight away all three came out of the box and flew up into the high branches. 

They lived in the wild but still returned to me for food. I also came to realise that I was able to recognise their individual calls so I could tell where they were in the garden or even in neighbouring gardens. I no longer had a timeframe for feeding but just fed them when they decided they were hungry but they were obviously finding their own food as well. At this point I took to carrying the tweezers and small tubs of food around with me so I was always ready to feed them, no matter where I was or what I was doing, and they would often cheekily gather together in the garden on a convenient perch and just wait in the sun for me to pass by with my tub of food.

Ken feeding the Blue Tits in his garden

I even set up a small bird table in the fig tree on which I placed mince, mealworms and water so they could help themselves and this soon became popular, not only with them but with the local Robin too.  During the day, they would sometimes land on my shoulder or fly onto the garden table while we were having coffee.

The Blue Tits joining Ken and his wife at the garden table.

Over the next two weeks their dependence on me began to reduce. They were even hesitant about coming too close to me, presumably displaying an inherent suspicion of humans, which was a good sign but also quite sad for me. They eventually became completely independent and kept their distance. 

It was immensely satisfying to have given these young Blue Tits a chance to live and, although it was a huge commitment, it was a wonderful and rewarding experience which I still feel privileged to have been part of. I will never know if the little ones survived the winter and continued to develop but at least I gave them a fighting chance and as I look at the Blue Tits in the garden this year, I will be wondering if perhaps one or two of them are those I cared for.

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