Climate Change and Great Tits

When I started writing my blog, I noticed a direct relationship between titles and clicks. Fart in the title? That was pretty popular. Sex? Loads of clicks. Sexual dysfunction? Even more. Clown fish incest? Wow, you people are weird.

My boss at the time attributed this to a common adage in the publishing industry: there are three areas of the anatomy that grab people’s attention, and when writing, you should always start low and work your way up.

Well, I’ve already addressed the bum, I’ve gotten through the sexual organs, tummies and food have been well explored – where to go from here? Time to work my way up the body.

But alas for you, though this post is about Great Tits…it’s about birds you pervert. Yes, Great Tits are a species of bird, and not a particularly funny bird for having that name. In fact, there are all sorts of birds with hilarious names that bird watchers don’t think twice about shouting out in a public park around children and the elderly.

Aside from the Great Tit, there is a Blue Tit, Bushtit, Fluffy–backed Tit babbler, a Blue and Red -footed Booby, Rough Faced Shag, Cock of the Rock, Spangled Drongo, Hoary Redpoll, Brown Trembler, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch, and a Welcome Swallow… among others. Strangely, I have yet to meet a single ornithologist who had a sense of humor about any of these names.

If you’re from Europe, Asia or northern parts of Africa, you probably recognize the term Great Tits not as something a dude shouts out of a car at you, but an incredibly common bird. So common, you’re probably wondering how they could possibly be affected by climate change.

As with any species, there are a couple factors to consider when thinking about how it will respond to climate change. Some species might just totally rock out in a warmer environment –some like it hot – while others might be a little pickier and if they can, readjust their range accordingly. Some species might not need to move at all though, because like your stoner cousin Jimmy, a species can be flexible and whether it sleeps on the couch or in the Four Seasons Hotel, it’s like, whatever, that’s cool. Pigeons are sort of like that – I’ve seen pigeons warming their toasty feathers under the eaves of high-end hotels eating leftover caviar and blinis; I’ve also seen footless pigeons stumble into traffic, sleep in mall parking lots in snow storms and subsist on nothing more than potato chips and hobo skin. When animals are flexible like this it’s called plasticity, because plastic is pliable, and so are some animal traits.

Of course, some species will be big babies about the changes and die off (such drama!), while others might adapt due to selective pressure. How do you know when the changes you are seeing are due to plasticity (no genetic change) and when it is due to evolution (genetic change)? Those questions are the ones that researchers are getting really excited about. Because dude, evolution is flippin’ cool.

How does this relate to climate change and Great Tits? Well, in order to perpetuate the species these birds rely on timing the hatching of their eggs to align with when their food is most available, and these baby birds loooove caterpillars. Meanwhile caterpillar growth and development is strongly dependent on temperature and if it is getting warmer earlier in the year, then the caterpillars will emerge and be available to be fed to baby birds that much earlier (1). So if these birds are able to move up their mating, laying and hatching of adorable baby birds, is it plasticity we are seeing (plastic, pliable traits) or microevolution (genetic change over short periods of time) (2)? These are the questions that researchers are asking for not only Great Tits, but no doubt Blue Tits, Tiny Tits and well…I just wanted to say “Tits” a couple more times, but you get the idea….cool area of research.

So, aside from gutter-minded ornithologists, who cares about silly little birds with hilariously filthy names? Well, I’m not European, but considering the prevalence of Bunga Bunga parties there, I’m certain that many a young man would be saddened by the loss of the European Great Tits. And really, who hasn’t spent hours looking through binoculars for a Hoary Redpoll or a Nuthatch? These animals must be preserved, if only so we can laugh at them.

Further Reading
(1) Selection for the timing of great tit breeding in relation to caterpillar growth and temperature.
(2) Predicting demographically sustainable rates of adaptation: can great tit breeding time keep pace with climate change?


Minda Berbeco has a PhD in Biology from Tufts University and is the Policy & Programs Director at the National Center for Science Education. She apologizes for not blogging for the past two weeks, she was busy badgering white house employees about the importance of science education – so you’re welcome children of the future. In addition, she would like to apologize to her ornithologist friend for not including the name “Spoon-billed Grosbeak” in her list of hilarious bird names. It just wasn’t as funny as “Brown Trembler”, which sets a mighty high bar. Tee hee.

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