How to save the willow tit

Anna Feeney

Friday 17 December 2021

In damp, ex-industrial pockets of the UK, a determined little bird hangs on to survival.

It has a neck like a bodybuilder, works in strong monogamous pairs to raise its young, and is so good at hiding that it is a challenge for even the most eagle-eyed birders. But despite all this it is now the UK’s most threatened resident bird, with its numbers plummeting by 94% over the past 50 years. It is the willow tit, and it needs our help.  

Four years ago, an ambitious conservation project, Back from the Brink, undertook to save some of England’s most threatened species. As part of this the RSPB and Yorkshire Wildlife Trust joined forces to see how to rescue the willow tit from its downward plummet in Yorkshire. Now, as the willow tit project comes to a close, we look at what we all learned and how we can protect this sturdy little bird’s future.


Why is the willow tit declining?

There are several reasons why the willow tit is on the decline. For one thing, the willow tit makes nests out of rotting wood, hammering away at the wood to make a hole - displaying all the ambition of a much larger woodpecker. Pecking a nest hole in wood is hard work for a small bird though, so each year the monogamous pair of parents put all of their energy into carving out the one perfect nest. If the nest fails (either due to predation of young or usurpation of the nest from other tits) then the pair will usually have to wait until next year to try again. Even if they do have a second brood which is successful, it will often not support as many young, so it takes a long time for their numbers to build up.

Perhaps more importantly, willow tits live in damp, thick scrub, a habitat which is fast declining across the UK. These birds travel through the dense shrub layers, using them as protective tunnels; and as we lose our hedgerows and scrubland in the UK they are losing their transport links.

The only strongholds left are around disused railway and canal routes in the north of England and Wales. There, in the unmaintained corridors, elder, birch, and bramble thrive and create a home for willow tits.


How can we save them?

The Back from the Brink team decided on a three-pronged approach: active conservation, research, and getting local people and land managers on board to help. Importantly, as a culmination of this work the team produced a Willow Tit Handbook for land managers so they can use the best available science to save the willow tit. It’s the first comprehensive document for this species and it’s all built on discoveries from this four-year project.

Strap in with some deadwood

The active conservation work took a few forms, one was somewhat counter-intuitively - cutting back some of the vegetation that had grown along the old canals and railways. If left to their own devices the taller plants would block out the sun and stunt the willow tit-friendly plants in the undergrowth. By cutting trees back and coppicing others they could maintain the dense scrub growth that the willow tit so needs to thrive.

The other big conservation step they took was to strap deadwood logs to living trees as potential nesting sites for the willow tit. More and more across the UK dead trees are chopped up and removed, so putting dead wood back into suitable areas of woodland attempts to recreate natural processes taken advantage of by willow tits.

An avian Marco Polo

Then there was the research side of the project. Until 1897 we didn’t know the willow tit was a distinct species (it looks very similar to the marsh tit) so it’s no surprise there were still a lot of questions to be answered about their lifestyle! The team therefore decided to tag some of them to act as undercover agents – showing us where they lived, how far they travelled, and how they interacted with other willow tits.

This was no easy feat. For one thing, tagging birds means setting up mist nets that can catch the birds as they fly by. Since willow tits only fly between dense, low-lying shrub, this presented some challenges! Also, the tags have to be small and light so as not to hinder the bird, otherwise they may be able to jettison them mere minutes after tagging. Finally, the only way to pick up the location of the birds once they’re tagged is to walk around with a large antenna and zero in on beeps of increasing frequency – almost like an ornithologist’s version of Marco Polo. It was a great way to engage with inquisitive passers-by too!

Volunteers were a particular help with this phase, even coming out to track willow tits during the Beast from the East storm of 2018! Through the tagging the project learned that willow tits need a mix of vegetation heights and tend to remain within a three-hectare home range during the winter months. Crucially, they also learned that each pair could need up to seven hectares of suitable habitat, helping pinpoint where birds need a larger territory to expand into.

It takes a village

Finally, the team needed to spread the word about the willow tit. Without people fighting for this precious bird beyond the four-year project timescale, it would never recover.

They held workshops with local groups, created a guide for landowners, and also engaged with the artistic community by doing a guided poetry walk with the Ted Hughes Poetry Society and collaborating with the Back from the Brink’s poet and artist-in-residence, Linden Katherine McMahon. Together they compiled an anthology of willow tit-inspired poetry and fiction, ‘We are a many bodied-singing thing’, to bring the wonder of the willow tit to life.

All this work also helped to emphasise that helping the willow tit helps people. The wet woodland and damp scrub that they thrive in soaks up water and is a great ally in mitigating flood risk.


The future of the willow tit

All this tremendous effort came to a head with the Dearne Valley Wetlands being designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in part for its breeding willow tit population. This is only the second time that the importance of willow tits’ habitat has led to a SSSI designation in England, so this really was a special moment.

The numbers of willow tit are still, sadly, declining. But now conservationists and local landowners and groups are armed with the knowledge and the will to save them. With time, we can hope that their numbers will start to soar once more.


To find out more about Back from the Brink’s Willow Tit project and to download the Willow Tit Handbook visit the Back from the Brink website

Last Updated: Tuesday 25 January 2022

Tagged with: Country: Birds Country: Conservation Country: Wildlife Topic: Birds Topic: Conservation Topic: Wildlife