"Tell-tale tit, your mother can’t knit, your dad can’t walk with a walking stick!” goes the playground taunt that singles out the informer and their family for ridicule and revenge.

There are other versions including “Tell-tale tit, your tongue’ll be split, all the dogs in town will have a little bit.”

What tales do tits tell? “Tit” in this context means little bird, a Nordic word that couples with Old English mase to become titmouse, the little birds that scuttle around the garden feeders or fidget like rapid-eye movement through hedges. Perhaps the secrets they shouldn’t tell have something to do with their complicated love lives.

Into a rowan tree fly long-tailed tits, Aegithalos caudatus – silver-breasted dasher, bellringer (pit-pit-pit, they chime), feather-poke, lollipop, bottle-tom (they make of bottle-shaped nests of spider webs, lichens and down). Like other titmice, long-tails travel in groups, but there is always something special about them, like covens or teams or congregations.

tits on feeder

This lot arrive together, they are watchful, restless and buoyant, strung together by constant contact calls, tail flicks and very deep bonds. 

Next month these bands will change: the parent birds and some of the friends, male or female, will form cooperative breeding groups that work together to build the nest and raise the young. These birds have an emotional experience that is complex, different to the majority of monogamous or even polygamous or promiscuous bird pairings. It is not anthropocentric to think of the emotions implicit in such bonding as something the ornithologist Tim Birkhead calls “an adaptive explanation for love”. These tits may not be telling tales, but what they show is love.

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