Today I watched a pair of Blue Tits paying a lot of attention to the inflorescences of Mahonia in the local park, coming back to them again and again. What were they doing? If you hear nectar feeding in birds you would most likely think on hummingbirds and the tropics. However, several bird groups feed regularly on nectar in addition to hummingbirds, honeyeaters and sunbirds. In Australia, birds are actually the main flower pollinators. Although nectar feeding behaviour in Europe is far less widespread, it does happen. In 1985, Hugh Ford reviewed the handful of studies suggesting or indicating nectarivory in European birds (see table below).
Most of the species were warblers, with the Chiffchaff and the Black-cap the most cited ones. Warblers winter in southern Europe or Africa, where there is a larger proportion of bird-pollinated flowers and where nectar feeding in birds, is more widespread. They are also known to exploit nectar while migrating, as a quick way to gain energy. The bird species that most commonly feeds on nectar in northern Europe, however, is - you guessed it - the versatile Blue Tit. Blue Tits seen on flowers are often thought to be foraging for insects, or feeding on parts of the plant, such as petals. However, Blue tits have been recorded feeding on a range of flowers, both introduced garden varieties and native ones: Gooseberries, Flowering currants, and the Fritillary Imperial Crown. What is more, Fitzpatrick, studying suburban blue tits, found that nectar can make a substantial part of Blue tit diet in early spring. Feeding on flowering currant inflorescences, Blue tits chose the most productive flowers, those with a darker pink rim. They used two strategies to get at the nectar: pecking the corolla out to reach the nectaries, or perforating a hole on the side of the flower - bumblebee style - to reach the nectar directly, as the flowers are too narrow for them to insert their beaks, and therefore cause quite a deal of flower destruction. Coal Tits were also observed feeding on the Flowering Currants, but they inserted their more slender beak into the flower and thus did not destroy the flower in the process of feeding.
The Fritillary imperial crown is an impressive red or yellow flowered bulb in which a whorl of wide, flowers hang from a stout bare stem. It originates from Asia but is widely planted in the UK. Búrquez, showed that Blue tits not only collect nectar from these flowers, but they also act as are efficient pollinators of the plant.
Blue tits in native habitats are often seen feeding on willow blossom, so nectar feeding seems to be another of the wide variety of opportunistic behaviours used by this tit to use resources.
Ford, H. (1985). Nectarivory and Pollination by Birds in Southern Australia and Europe Oikos, 44 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3544053
Búrquez, A. (1989). Blue Tits, Parus caeruleus, as Pollinators of the Crown Imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, in Britain Oikos, 55 (3) DOI: 10.2307/3565592
Fitzpatrick, S. (1994). Nectar-feeding by suburban Blue Tits: contribution to the diet in spring Bird Study, 41 (2), 136-145 DOI: 10.1080/00063659409477210