Date:October 25, 2020

This Long-Tailed Tit That Lives In Japan Looks Like A Floating Cotton Ball In The Sky

Everyone loves seeing tiny cute things, especially animals. And especially when they’re fluffy, like this cotton ball-like bird from Hokkaido, Japan’s second-largest island. This Japanese island has plenty of preserved wildlife which makes for a perfect home for the Long-tailed tit.

They look like white cotton balls bouncing around and are beloved by the Japanese, who call them Shima enaga. In English, they’re known as long-tailed tits, though this particular subspecies is only found in Hokkaido.

What makes Hokkaido’s long-tailed tits so special? All members of the species are tiny, measuring 13 to 15 centimeters long—and half of that is tail! But in Hokkaido, these tits have a characteristic that adds to their cuteness. Typically, long-tailed tits have distinct black “eyebrows” that sweep above their eyes. However, the tits in Hokkaido lose their eyebrows as they transition into adulthood, leaving them with a pure white face that makes them look like little snowmen.

They live year-round in Hokkaido, where their snow-white faces certainly help them blend in during the island’s long winters. These energetic birds typically move in flocks of 20 to 30 and perform acrobatic tricks as they flutter around. While their small size makes them vulnerable during cold winters, their broods always rebound due to the sheer number of eggs they lay. Typically, they’ll lay 7 to 10 eggs so that even if some don’t survive, enough chicks hatch to keep the population numbers up.

Raising these adorable birds is a community undertaking, with other adult long-tailed tits who have failed to breed often stepping in to help feed all the hungry mouths. They’ll take turns with the parents bringing insects back to the nest until the chicks grow old enough to fend for themselves.

Though the long-tailed tit is widespread from Western Europe across Russia all the way to Japan, there’s nothing quite like Hokkaido’s unique version.

Their tiny circular bodies are easy to spot with their long tails and significant bird call.

The Long-tailed Tit is the second smallest bird seen in Japan, following the smallest Goldcrest. I would like to pay attention to the long-tailed tits’ struggles for procreation by helping each other and occasionally summoning support even from birds of prey.

There is almost no difference in appearance between the long-tailed tit of the first photo and its subspecies (shimaenaga in Japanese) in Hokkaido, shown below. Both have black wings, blacktails, and white underpart. The back is grayish-black in the center and light burgundy on the sides and they both have black eyes and tiny beaks. However, when watched from the front, the subspecies is really like a little snowman without black eyebrows on the head. As both look as if co-work something, I feel inclined to add words in a balloon.

The Long-tailed tit uses their call to stay in contact with other family members.

“Long-tailed Tits are so small and active that it is quite difficult to photograph them. On this heavy occasion of the turn of the era to Reiwa this year, I stirred up myself to attentively observe the birds rearing chickens from a tent settled a little farther from their nest and succeeded in taking a lot of photos of them. I picked up one of them and trimmed it as shown next. The birds collect moss and make a round nest, whose outside is wrapped up with umenokigoke (Parmotrema tinctorum)and pasted with spider silk for camouflage. The inside is lined with downy feathers and animal hair. I remember that once I have touched a nest from which chicks had already left. It felt fluffy like a soft wool hat.” [Source]

The Long-tailed tit is a very social bird and for bird watchers everywhere they might be the one to literally land on your shoulder.

A Long-tailed tit lays as many as 7 to 10 eggs, but it is said that the survival rate of eggs and chicks is not high. This must be the reason the bird lays so many eggs. In order to hatch eggs and breed chickens until they become big enough to leave the nest safely, the bird is likely to intentionally nest close to the Common Buzzard or Northern Goshawk to avoid predation. If so, it is definitely a pearl of splendid wisdom for its survival.

The Long-tailed tit will nest either low in a bramble bush or high in the forks of tree branches.

“The bird sits on the eggs for 12 to 14 days. When a parent comes out of a domed nest after sitting on the eggs motionlessly for such a long time, the tip of its long tail is bent. Watching such a scene and thinking of the bird’s sincere way of living calms down our mind. Then it takes more or less than 20 days until the chicks leave the nest, during which time parents are busy bringing food such as tiny insects at first and gradually changing to bigger ones. In the photo, three chicks are seen opening their mouths wide. How do they rotate and get fed equally? Chicks can fledge at the same time only because they are assumed to be equally fed, so I really wonder why I missed the moment of rotation.   As chicks grow bigger, the nest swells more and more and when it has bulged tight to the extent it can blow off anytime, parents lead the chicks to leave the nest all at once.”  [Sorce]

This little bird group can consist of family members or another friendly adorable Long-tailed tit.

“I could observe closely and find out that there was a helper bird, other than the male and female parents, which carried food to the nest as well.   It is said that in some cases there can be more helpers.   Some 5 pairs of long-tails tits make one group and they seem to have such a peculiar habit as to help each other to rear chicks when the eggs don’t hatch or chicks are predated.”

“Watching how they co-operate, I couldn’t but consider that in our human society, too, if there were support from husbands, friends, young people and those who have finished bringing up children, it could be of some help to work as a brake against the baby bust. In a society like the one in old Japan where extended families ordinarily existed, a lot of helpers were available in case of need. So we might be able to learn a lot from the way the long-tailed tits bring up their chicks.” [Source]

On the Japanese island of Hokkaido, the Long-tailed tit has no trouble making themselves at home. And unsurprisingly, they are super popular among Japanese people.

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