Great Tit Turns Out to be a Killer

Sep 10, 2009 by Lin Edwards weblog
Great Tit
Great Tit, Parus major. Image: Luc Viatour, via Wikimedia Commons.

( -- The Great Tit is an aggressive songbird found in Britain, continental Europe, parts of Northern Africa, and much of Asia. It is believed to survive mostly on seeds, nuts, fruit, insects, beetles, and spiders, but scientists studying a cave in Hungary have now discovered a population of Great Tits that kill and eat hibernating bats.

Researchers from the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen, Bavaria, studied the Great Tits (Parus major) at a cave in the Bukk mountains in northeastern Hungary for two successive winters, and witnessed the deliberately seeking out and eating hibernating pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus) on over a dozen occasions. They also discovered bat carcasses with peck marks.

The scientists, Péter Estók, Sándor Zsebők, and Björn M. Siemers, said the birds flew close to the cave walls, often disappearing into crevices to look for bats. When the hibernating bats are disturbed, they squeak in a range audible to the Great Tits, and the researchers thought the birds may have learned to listen out for the squeaks. To test the hypothesis, they recorded bat squeaks. When played back, the birds were interested 80% of the time.

Pipistrelle bats have tiny bodies, being around one-quarter the size of the Great Tit. The birds were able to capture them on the cave floor or on the rocks, and either ate the bats where they found them or carried them out of the cave to devour them in trees near the entrance.

The report, published in the Royal Society's , said the birds' behavior indicated they hunted the bats systematically and killed them for food. The question is, how did they develop this behavior? The scientists could only speculate it might have been a type of cultural learning.

There have been a few previous reports of meat-eating Great Tits in Poland and Sweden, but it was unclear whether in those cases the birds had killed the bats or found them already dying or dead. If they did hunt the bats, Dr Siemers said it could be possible the hunting behavior was transmitted along the birds' migration routes. The scientists believe the birds would need a wide-mouthed cave such as the one in Hungary, to provide enough light for the birds to hunt. This again suggests the behavior would be extremely rare.

When the researchers provided alternative food for the birds, they took it in preference and the number of attacks on bats fell, which implies their hunting behavior was a response to the harsh winter food shortages. It seems when times are tough, the Great Tit gets even tougher.

More information: Péter Estók, Sándor Zsebők, and Björn M. Siemers, Great tits search for, capture, kill and eat , Biol. Lett. published online before print September 9, 2009, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2009.0611

© 2009

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User comments : 12

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5 / 5 (6) Sep 10, 2009
Best headline this site has EVER had... rofl
3 / 5 (4) Sep 10, 2009
This is the first time I've ever done a search for "Great Tit" and found what I was looking for. Thanks, Physorg!
4.8 / 5 (9) Sep 10, 2009
How fun would it be to describe your profession to people?

"So what do you do?"

"I study Great Tits."
3 / 5 (2) Sep 10, 2009
Great Tits may be dangerous for our brains, guys...
5 / 5 (3) Sep 10, 2009
Oh great, I'm not even going to bother publishing my study on that predatory hairless feline...
not rated yet Sep 10, 2009
The scientists could only speculate it might have been a type of cultural learning.

what else would marxists discover?

how about opportunity and easy protein?
not rated yet Sep 11, 2009
just watched Oprah on breast cancer awareness last couple of days. i was really concerned about the headline thinking "oh my... didn't know they're literally carrying that much of a risk!." turns out...
[very playful indeed... and clean at that. hands down to Lin Edwards.]
not rated yet Sep 11, 2009
"when times are tough, the Great Tit gets even tougher"

This article is full of WIN!
not rated yet Sep 11, 2009
I guess somebody "boobed" wuth the title of the article, being inconsiderate of the ignorance and immaturity of the readership.

For your further "titilation" I would mention that I have been studying "birds", including "tits", since I was six or seven, and learned how to attract "tits" to my door by leaving cream, (not necessarily whipped), outside at night. "Great Tits" were always more welcome than the more common "Marsh Tit". Some things never change.

Right now, if you are European, you are probably smiling at good childhood memories, and the poor ornithological knowledge and experience of the jock-strapped commentators above! ;-)
5 / 5 (1) Sep 11, 2009
Some people just know how to write a headline.
not rated yet Sep 13, 2009
Ladies must really like these birds.

Everywhere I go, there are always women walking around with great tits!

not rated yet Sep 15, 2009
Two tits in the hand is worth one in the bush.
Not in my book.

I've seen more than a few deaths on the highway caused by Great Tits.

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