Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Towards a Blue Tit Arts and Craft Movement
When I was little, it was common for blue tits to peck their way through the foil tops of doorstep milk bottles to get at the cream. Presumably this was a skill learned by observation of other tits: there aren't many milk bottle tops in the wild, after all.

It occurred to me the other day how long it is since I saw an example of this. Of course, there are far fewer foil-topped milk bottles being left out these days - but even so there are some, and all appear intact from my observation, both here in Bristol and in Hampshire. (Reports from elsewhere are of course welcome.) There are 15 million blue tits in the UK - why aren't they helping themselves?

My theory is that once milk bottle numbers had declined below a certain critical mass the opportunities to learn it by watching other tits at work became so few and so isolated that the knowledge was lost, like the reading of Linear-A. In tit terms this represents the loss of an ancient craft, a sad cultural impoverishment.

As to how to put things right, I can only suggest that we capture some young and impressionable blue tits, let them loose in a cinema and play them video of the practice on a loop. If, indeed, any such video exists: all I could find on Youtube was this Second Life version, which omits the crucial information about how to break through the foil.

A bit more Googling yields this article, which mostly confirms my hunch, but makes me wonder additionally whether the homogenization of milk (when did that come in?) has something to do with blue tits dropping it from their diet.

Also, many areas like our own here in Kent do not have milk vans doing the rounds, hence tits are reliant on the fat balls we hang up in the garden.

That reminds me, I must buy a fat ball! *adds to shopping list*

tits are reliant on the fat balls

This made me giggle inordinately. Because I am ten.

(Sorry if this ends up posting multiple times. I keep getting timed out)

This came up in conversation when visiting a friend in Cornwall a few weeks ago. I remember pecking being a milk-related hazard of my childhood, but thought it something confined to Yore. However, she revealed that her milk bottles were still regularly pecked.

Our theories were:

- There are noticeably more birds in her area than in mine. Even if only one bird in a hundred has mastered the art of milk-stealing, there will still be a lot of accomplished milk thieves in her neighbourhood.

- My doorstep holds semi-skimmed, and hers holds gold top. Clearly birds have learnt how to recognise the bottle top that denotes cream-rich milk in their area, and reserve their attentions for these, while spurning mere semi-skimmed.

I keep meaning to ask my Mum. She lives in a semi-rural, bird-rich area, and has recently changed from regular milk to semi-skimmed, so I can test both theories in one.

It seems that going for gold-top would be the digestively savvy course, given the general lactose intolerance of birds. I'd be interested to hear your mother's reply. (Mine has silver-top - an emblem of herself, as Ben Jonson might have put it - so is a halfway house; but perhaps today's discerning blue tit insists on Jersey.)

So many more people buy semi-skimmed these days, too, and cream never seems to float to the surface of that. We had deliveries until about two years ago, and had occasional bird issues until we stopped.

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Birds pecking milk bottles was apparently a major cause of outbreaks of the food poisoning organism Campylobacter jejunii. I actually had this infection once - probably caused by being given dodgy coleslaw at a relative's house - and the public health questionnaire I filled in (it is a notifiable disease!) specifically asked if I got my milk delivered in foil-capped bottles. So I'm not too sad to see it go.

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