This year the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is being held on Saturday 25th, Sunday 26th and Monday 27th January.
This event is very important as it collects an impressive amount of data about the health – or otherwise – of our garden bird populations. It provides a window into our wildlife and the great thing about 40 years of the Big Garden Birdwatch is that we now have four decades of comparative results. The findings provide an important insight into how our wildlife is faring.
The Big Garden Birdwatch alerted us to the decline in song thrush numbers. This species was a firm fixture in the top 10 in 1979, but by 2019 numbers of song thrushes seen in gardens had declined by 76%, coming in at number 20.
The Birdwatch has also shone a light on the declines of house sparrows and starlings. These birds have dropped by an alarming 56 and 80 per cent respectively in gardens across the UK since the Birdwatch began.
Rebecca Munro, RSPB Director of Communications, says: “With nearly half a million people now regularly taking part, coupled with 40 years’ worth of data, the Big Garden Birdwatch allows us to monitor trends and helps us understand how birds are doing. With results from so many gardens, we are able to create a ‘snapshot’ of bird numbers across the UK.”
For some species the numbers the numbers have increased. Great tits are up by 68% since the first Birdwatch and in 2016 long-tailed tits flew into the Big Garden Birdwatch top 10, after the average number seen visiting gardens across the UK increased by 44 per cent.
Ian from the RSPB Reserve at Minsmere has certainly seen some changes in his own garden over the years: “Back when I started, I wouldn’t expect goldfinches and long tailed tits. It was sparrows, dunnocks, chaffinches, robins, song thrushes and blue tits. Now there seems to be a much bigger variety of birds: goldfinches, long tailed tits and even siskins are much more common.”
Changes in the climate would also seem to be having an impact. Over recent decades blackcaps have increasingly been seen in gardens in winter. Although these birds are primarily summer visitors to the UK, some are spending the milder winters here rather than migrating further south in Europe.
Wild and wonderful The Birdwatch is not without its oddities and some very unusual visitors occasionally turn up. These include an American robin in Putney, a black-throated thrush on the Isle of Bute, and a common rosefinch in Yorkshire. In 2014, a yellow-rumped warbler, which usually spends winter in South America, turned up in a garden in Durham.
Less unusual but no less thrilling was the explosion of waxwings visiting gardens in 2017. Usually found feasting on berries in Scandinavia, these winter visitors come to the UK when there is a lack of food in their native countries. In 2017, waxwings were seen in around 11 times more gardens compared with the previous couple of years.
The Joy of Taking Part
It’s clear that what unites the Big Garden Birdwatch across time and among those taking part is the pure sense of excitement and joy that the Birdwatch brings, as well as the involvement in citizen science. Asked why people should take part, Ian explains: “It’s great fun and it’s incredibly valuable – a source of great year-on-year data about our garden birds. And it’s a great way to take time out, come together and enjoy wildlife.”
Success measured in mail bags
Did you know that the Big Garden Birdwatch started out as an event for children? Back in 1979 the RSPB joined forces with BBC’s Blue Peter and called on children to let them know what birds they saw in their garden. Hundreds took up the call and in those pre-digital days, dutifully posted in their findings. The early signs of success were there, with the RSPB team faced with an impressive 34 mail bags full of post to sort.
The ‘one-off’ activity proved so successful that it grew into the regular event it is today, although it wasn’t until 2001 that we invited adults to join in the fun, too!
Please try and find an hour on the last weekend in January to make a contribution to this invaluable project.