Strange tits in Hoi Ha

by Nicola Newbery

iNaturalist
Japanese Tit (Parus minor)          Photo: Francesco Veronesi

I was most surprised the first time I looked out of the window at Hoi Ha and saw a tit in a nearby tree, as I had always thought of it as an English Garden Bird and really wasn’t expecting to see any here in Hong Kong. What could it be? It has taken me years to manage to get a shot – you know how it is, you never have your camera with you when you need it!

A warning before we proceed any further. Whatever you do, don’t try Googling ‘Hong Kong Tits’ if you are interested in birds of the feathered kind.

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Strange tit                 Photo: Nicola Newbery

Although this bird looks rather like a Great Tit, Parus major, there aren’t any in Hong Kong – the closer they occur is northern China. I am advised that the tits in Hong Kong are ‘subspecies commixtus’ and treated by most bird lists as Japanese Tits (Parus minor), but as Cinereous Tits (Parus cinereus) by the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society though apparently this is not supported by DNA evidence. I have found a photo on iNaturalist of a Japanese Tit and it does look different, more yellow above whereas mine is grey. How confusing is this?! No wonder the taxonomy is in a bit of a mess.

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Parus Major (Great Tit) distribution map Graphic: Google
It gets even more complicated. There have been a couple of local records of the subspecies minor in winter which is greener above and yellower below than the resident birds.

So, I keep changing my mind about whether to file this photo away as a Japanese Tit or a Cinereous Tit. Despite the compelling DNA, I am tempted to go by looks alone and beginning to favour the latter, accepting that our Tits in south-eastern China & Hainan are grey, like Cinereous elsewhere in Asia, and these Cinereous Tits are a subspecies of Japanese Tits …

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