Village Voices Nature Note: Master-builders

Who are the world’s greatest architects?  You might nominate the builders of such iconic ancient structures as the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal and the Parthenon, or perhaps modern celebrity-architects like Le Corbusier, Norman Foster and Frank Gehry conjuring up their breath-taking confections of steel and glass.  All extraordinary feats of engineering and imagination on a massive scale.

I’d nominate a bird, though. Quite a common one, and very small –weighing just ten grams (about the weight of two sheets of A4) and only 14cm long (of which more than half is its tail).  There’s the clue: a long-tailed tit.  You can often see loose parties of them in winter flitting through the hedges and trees to work the vegetation for tiny insects and spiders, all the while keeping contact with their family flock through soft, conversational zupp calls and little trills.   They are becoming common garden birds too, clustering round the bird-feeder like a fluffy feathered jacket.  Their nests are usually very well concealed, deep in blackthorn or hawthorn hedges to protect them from predators, but if you ever come across one it is a thing of great beauty.  They construct them from the finest materials – mosses, lichens and feathers (some 1,500 of them in a single nest), all bound together and secured by filigree strands of spiders’ silk.  Just imagine sewing with thread from a spider’s web – and using only your mouth.  The nest is designed in the form of a perfect oval-shaped dome, with a small entrance hole near the top.  It has to satisfy the most stringent building regulations: well insulated enough to maintain a constant temperature for the eggs and young; porous enough to keep the air fresh; capacious and strong enough to hold the female brooding a clutch up to twelve eggs for a fortnight; and then flexible enough to later accommodate the bare, struggling nestlings as they take about another fortnight to grow and fledge.  All this done from instinct and at high speed, with no construction manuals, consultants, specialist assistance or tools.  

A long-tailed tit’s nest.

No wonder some of the old country names for the long-tailed tit reflect this remarkable architecture: bum-barrel, bush oven, hedge jug, pudding bag and jack-in-a-bottle.  What is even more amazing is that the nest is only occupied for a single season and when the autumn and winter storms come it will be shredded and destroyed.   It’s a work of exquisite natural art designed to fulfil its function just once and then to be replaced and newly constructed again the next year.  Its only permanence comes from this annual re-creation from the template in the bird’s brain. Surely the winner!

Jeremy Mynott
2 April 2024