Coal Tit vs Great Tit: 5 Unique Differences Between Them

coal tit and great tit

Last Updated: April 25, 2022

Do you ever wonder about those tiny birds in your garden that could be plain-looking or eye-catching in their bright plumes? These feathered visitors seem familiar, but you're uncertain if they are what you think they are.

Well...

Western Pennsylvania has two types of chickadees, the black cap and the Carolina chickadee. These birds have similar-looking hybrids, making it pretty challenging to identify one from the other.

Some call these hybrids chickadee, but these birds are tits and are well-known for frequenting backyards. Therefore, please read on to address your confusion in identifying great tit vs coal tit.

Main Differences Between Coal Tit And Great Tit:

The main difference between coal tit and great tit are:

  • A great tit is a sizeable species, larger-sized than the robin, whereas the coal tit is a small bird.
  • A great tit has yellow underparts with a black and white head, whereas the coal tit has off-white underparts with a black and white head.
  • A great tit nests in tree holes and nest boxes, whereas the coal tit, despite nesting in tree holes, also uses ground holes.

A Closer Look At The Tit Species

Tits are common birds in the United Kingdom, and you can see them there all year. Titmouse is an unusual Old English word, "tit" meaning small animal, and "mase" meaning a kind of bird. 

Hence, the word titmouse means a small type of bird.

Chickadees have a more widespread distribution in America's northern regions than titmice. These tits are familiar in gardens and the countryside, noticeable in their colorful plumes and distinct patterns. Tits can go solo when traveling, or they join a small flock sometimes.

The black-capped chickadee is often a tame bird, but titmice can be very protective of their territory like most other chickadees. These creatures primarily eat insects during their breeding season but lively forage seeds when not breeding.

Only the black crested titmouse, a woodland bird with a black crest, is the prevalent species in the US. The bold and acrobatic blue tit might be the first one you would notice at feeders, although it prefers to dwell in forests.

Like the willow, the marsh tit occurs in England and Wales, with numbers declining significantly in Scotland. Then, the garden bird, long tailed tit, a forest resident from western North America, with black, brown, and white plumes.

Scotland's coniferous woodland is home to the crested tit; its size and color are identical to the marsh tit. While the bearded tit is among the British birds with a metallic voice, it occurs in Europe but is more widespread in East Asia.

The oak and juniper titmice have the same habitat preferences; the oak tit is never far from the Pacific Coast's forests, juniper tit enjoys pinyon-juniper forest. Not to mention the Siberian tit, also a broad-leaved forest occupant and wherever there are coniferous trees.

Despite the broad geographical overlaps in their habitat preferences, it remains unknown why the black-capped chickadee does not interbreed with the boreal chickadee. Let's not forget the coal tit inhabits forests rich in conifer seeds and woodland, garden, and park.

The bridled titmouse and Mexican chickadee have overlapping ranges, yet no hybridization occurs, while the black-crested and tufted tit produce hybrids even with non-overlapping territories.

Great tit or Parus Major and common redpoll are small-sized species that can drop their body temperatures at high latitudes. But these creatures can drop their core body temperatures slightly at high altitudes when bird food is scarce, allowing them to save energy.


Coal Tit vs Great Tit Comparison

So, how does one know if that petite bird in their bird feeder is a coal tit or great tit?

Understanding individual birds with close resemblances to another species requires careful observation. 

Facial expressions, characteristics, and body language can help you distinguish great tit vs coal tit. However, bird families are not always reliable to use as guides to determine how the birds will look when you see them in the field.

Maybe you can try setting up other categories aside from the bird's family description, like habitat, shape, size, and feeding behavior. But even with these, know that since birds are living creatures, you can rarely link them to a single habitat or mannerisms.

To help you identify these vibrant creatures better, here are some other relevant details to remember when comparing the difference between great tit and coal tit:

1. Appearance

Coal titmice are smaller than the blue tit but similar-sized to Marsh and Willow titmice, except for their nape's prominent white patch. Such a tit has a black head, fawn underneath, a short tail with a double white wing bar, a bluish-gray back, white cheeks, and a black bib.

While the nape patch is generally white for the British subspecies, several of its Irish subspecies have it yellowish, like that of a young coal tit.

Coal Tit
Coal Tit

On the other side of the fence, the great tit is the most sizable of its kind in the UK, a larger bird than Carolina chickadees. 

A great tit's plumage is nearly comparable to a blue tit, except it has a striking black head, white cheeks, and moss-green back. Its chest is a vibrant yellow with a black band that runs down from the tit's throat, and its wings are bluish-gray.

Great Tit
Great Tit

For both great tit or coal tit, males and females look the same, except males sometimes have a broader stripe going down to the legs.

2. Vocalization

In territorial rivalries between great tit males, they engage in a song to match that duel, indicating that an attack is likely to follow. Its song rate accelerates during aggressive interactions, even initiating a singing contest to increase the male's pairing success.

While the songs of coal tits or Periparus ater have the same loudness as the calls of great tits, theirs lack the sweetness and persistence. 

Both species are incredibly vocal, having a recurrent high-pitched trilling sound. Furthermore, chaffinches do not react to the mobbing calls of a great tit, but coal tits are more sensitive to such a mobbing call in sequence.

3. Habitat

Coal and great tits are woodland birds widespread across the UK, except that you can't find the latter in Scotland's Northern and the Western Isles.

Coal tits or Parus ater are well-adapted to gardens and backyards, showing affinity to deciduous forests rich in conifer trees, parks, and even hedges. But these birds have a smaller population than the great or blue tits. 

On the other hand, great tits have the same habitat preferences, like anywhere where trees are abundant, and do not mind using hedgerows. These tiny creatures prefer breeding in mixed and deciduous woodland since it prefers to nest in old tree hollows.

Great tits are the most widespread of all tits, with an extensive range in Japan, Indonesia, and North Africa.

4. Diet And Foraging Style

Both birds are active feeders, visiting any bird table for a meal, but great tits are vigorous at foraging insects from woodland trees. 

Despite primarily being a woodland occupant, great tits are well-accustomed to gardens and backyards. Such species enjoy feasting on insects, seeds, and nuts and wouldn't mind fighting off the more petite tits for food.

Coal tits maximize the benefits of their short, slender beaks in exploiting a conifer seed. You will often encounter it, frequenting backyards to search for peanuts, especially during the colder months.

5. Behavior

Sometimes, it might surprise you how great tits can be so fierce despite their size, never timid at feeders even. These birds do not enjoy open spaces and are mostly sedentary.

Coal tits like nesting in tree holes but willingly use a nest box. The coal wouldn't mind abandoning its breeding pair to hunt in small flocks when food is scarce.

It is not unusual for these two bird species to wander in mixed flocks during the cold season, foraging for food in woodlands and gardens.

Despite the cold air, these tits tend to group and join their relatives, like the blue tit, searching for a reliable food source. You can host these birds and contribute to wildlife conservation by creating an insect-friendly garden with shrubs to feed their young.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What tit is the least common in the United Kingdom?

According to the UK's significant woodland conservation organization, the Wildlife Trust, the Willow Tit is among the rare British birds with a rapidly declining population

The growing population of wild deer in the area is reportedly the cause of the willow tit's decline since these deers graze and damage the woodlands. Not to mention wildlife competition, predation, and habitat alterations also play a significant part in the willow's decreasing numbers.

How many tits are there in the UK?

The Paridae family has six tit species in the United Kingdom, with the coal tit and the great tit as two of the most common. The long-tailed tit is an unrelated species belonging to the Aegithalidae family.

What tit can you encounter in America's northern regions?

Despite being southern birds, the titmouse family is undoubtedly one of the most popular in North American backyards. There are five of its species that you can spot across the region -- the tufted titmouse, black-crested titmouse, oak titmouse, juniper titmouse, and bridled titmouse.


Conclusion

True enough, tits are so familiar that some birders will least likely confuse them with other birds. Bird identification within this family is pretty straightforward, but new birdwatchers often encounter challenges in telling whether it's a coal tit or great tit they see.

Initial observations of nature can be misleading, and closer inspection is often necessary before gaining valuable insights. In addition, understanding bird families are fundamental to learning because it brings to light the similarities and what makes each one unique at the same time. 

Knowing what to look for makes it reasonably easy to tell the difference between various tits and improves your affinity with them.

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