The Great Tit is a familiar bird on our bird feeders and in our gardens and woods, and its song is pretty familiar too. If you aren’t already familiar with it, then if you keep your ears open in the right sorts of places you will hear its song at this time of year and through the spring and early summer, and less often throughout the year.
What does a singing Great Tit sound like? Well, it’s not a very complex song; almost always it is a string of two-note phrases normally written as something like Tee-cher, Tee-cher, tee-cher and Great Tits can go on singing those phrases in long bursts and over and over again.
Here’s a 16-second recording by Benoit Van Hecke of a male Great Tit singing in France (and only a few days ago) on the marvellous xenocanto website.
Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher indeed. That may be a French Great Tit but it sounds just the same to me as a Great Tit I can hear from my back garden quite often at the moment.
That two note repeated song is characteristic of Great Tits and you’ll hear it a lot.
Here’s another Great Tit song that sounds pretty typical too.
This one is from the UK, from Yorkshire in May 2015 but I hope it sounds pretty similar to the earlier French bird.
And here’s an undated German Great Tit:
Similar again, I hope you’d agree, but this one is a bit slower and less urgent. But it’s still the basic Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher model, isn’t it?
Now, if all Great Tits always went Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher and no other species ever went Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher then we’d have got this one, commonly uttered, commonly heard, simple song from a common bird pretty much nailed. But, although it is almost that simple, it is not quite that simple, and I cannot mislead you because I wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights if I did.
First, there are a few other species, not many, and they aren’t anywhere near as common as Great Tits, and one of them isn’t singing much at this time of year anyway, that do a version of Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher. But let’s ignore them for now. I will certainly come back to one of them another time. Most Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher songs are performed by Great Tits.
But do all Great Tits go Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher ? Not exactly. Most do, at least something similar, but not all. Don’t blame me, this wonderful variety, or irritating confusion, isn’t my fault it is the process of thousands and thousands of generations of Great Tits evolving under natural selection and that really isn’t my fault.
Some Great Tits go Cher-tee, cher-tee, cher-tee, cher-tee and others go Cher-cher, cher-cher, cher-cher or Tee-tee, tee-tee, tee-tee. But unless you start listening hard you’ll hardly notice. You’ll hear lots of repeated two-note phrases and think ‘Great Tit – I know that song!’.
But if you really do listen carefully, you will find that an individual Great Tit doesn’t stick either to Tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher or one of the other variants all the time, some Great Tits have two or more distinct song types and they switch between them. One of my local (and by local I mean ‘heard from the garden’ not a short hike away) Great Tits switches between at least two song types. He often does it when he changes perch – if he flies a fair distance he seems to be more likely to switch song types than if he sits still.
Sit and listen, and you will notice this too. And now is definitely the time to do it as there aren’t too many different birds singing so you can, perfectly feasibly listen to one Great Tit as he goes about his business (and that isn’t a careless use of ‘he’ it’s almost certainly a male if it is singing).
I used to spend some of my time studying Great Tit songs around Oxford when I worked in the Zoology Department there. I was a junior research assistant at the time but I’ve got my name on a few scientific papers to do with Great Tit song so I’ll definitely come back to this subject again (and again) but let’s leave it there for today.
So, I think we’ve got to the point where you can go out and listen for a Great Tit and possibly recognise one. And then you could listen to it and really get to know it. But you’ll probably find that your Great Tit has more than one version of its song. Try it and see – it’s fun. All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.