FROM their distinctive swagger and noisy chattering on the ground to the dramatic massed flying displays which they put on overhead at dusk, they are a familiar sight to people across the country.
But anyone paying closer attention will have noticed that over recent years flocks of starlings have been getting harder to see. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds remains mystified by the decline, demonstrated by a survey carried out by the organisation which discovered that sightings of starlings in Scottish gardens were down by almost a fifth in a decade. In some regions, numbers had fallen by 50 per cent.
Last year the society launched an investigation to try to determine the cause of the ongoing fall, which follows a halving of populations during the past three decades resulting in starlings being added to the UK “red list” of Birds of Conservation Concern in 2002. Experts are now working with farmers to examine whether there are enough nesting sites and food for starlings in livestock areas.
It might not sound relevant to anyone who enjoys birdwatching from their garden, but the survey results which RSPB researchers are using include key data gathered from the charity’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch, which returns tomorrow. Last year more than 53,000 Scots took part in the annual weekend snapshot survey, each spending an hour recording the birds that visit their gardens or local parks. Their efforts help scientists spot trends in bird populations and understand the impact of changes in climate and land use.
Keith Morton, of RSPB Scotland, says: “Over a single year the information tells us very little. It’s only when we compare data over the long term that we can see trends developing, particularly significant changes in population which can set alarm bells ringing. Probably the most famous example of population change which the Big Garden Birdwatch has helped to reveal has been the dramatic decline in starling numbers.
“They are really sociable birds and people are surprised when they hear that starlings are in decline because they are still among the most common species seen in gardens during the survey. But when the survey started in 1979 most people were seeing on average 15 starlings in their gardens across Scotland. Now people are most likely to only see one or two, which is a big difference. We don’t know what’s behind the fall. It could be something affecting their feeding, it could be climate change, it’s not clear cut. We are using the data from the Big Garden Birdwatch along with statistics from other surveys to try to find out.”
With snow and ice covering much of Scotland this week in the latest cold snap, more and more birds are being forced to forage in gardens around the country to survive. So it is likely that people will be spoilt for choice when they look outside to see which species are around. People have already been reporting increased sightings of colourful winter migrants such as the redwing, fieldfare, brambling and waxwings.
Many feed on berries which are in short supply both in mainland Europe and now in Scotland, where they have been buried under snow and ice. If the freezing conditions continue, people can also play a more direct role in helping birds survive. Morton says: “For birds that feed on berries, bruised fruit is a good food to put out in your garden. Other birds, especially small birds such as wrens and blue tits, need a lot of energy to survive the cold so high-calorie seeds are good for them. Goldfinches love niger seeds, which you can get in garden centres and RSPB shops. Peanuts are also good as long as they aren’t salted or roasted.”
It might sound surprising but robins are apparently partial to mild cheese, and anyone keen to cut costs and reduce waste can serve up leftovers instead or as well. Morton adds: “Feeding birds doesn’t have to be expensive. Kitchen scraps are good, such as cooked potatoes, pasta and rice, again as long as there is no salt in them.”
The popularity of the Big Garden Birdwatch has been growing steadily to last year’s figure of 53,000, with 45,000 Scots taking part in 2011, up from 37,000 in 2010. The RSPB says the rise is often linked to bad winters which attract more and more interesting-looking birds to people’s gardens where they are easy to see in snowy conditions. Around six million birds are now spotted UK-wide by people taking part in the event.
The top five last year in the UK and Scotland included the same species, but although house sparrows topped both lists, the order of the other birds varied north and south of the border. For the past few years, the bird seen most often in Scottish gardens was the chaffinch, which was second last year in Scotland and fifth in the UK overall. Such variations, if repeatedly observed, can also help to highlight harmful changes in habitat or climate.
Since 2002 growing numbers of schoolchildren have also taken part in the sister event, the Big Schools Birdwatch, which this year runs from 21 January to 1 February. It is largely aimed at primary school classes which spend an hour over the course of the fortnight noting down the highest number of each species at any one time in their school grounds.
Last year more than 12,700 pupils at 390 schools across Scotland took part, the highest number so far. In 2010, the RSPB launched the Little Schools Birdwatch for nurseries, followed by the Really Big Schools Birdwatch in 2011 which is geared towards early secondary school pupils.
The RSPB is not the only charity encouraging people to help conserve, and appreciate, birds. Earlier this week the British Trust for Ornithology revealed that its weekly Garden BirdWatch survey had found blackbirds were visiting gardens in near-record numbers after the wintry weather.
Observations made by the public around the UK showed that the number of blackbirds spotted looking for food in UK gardens in mid-January was the second highest in a decade. The BTO believes that collecting records on a weekly basis helps researchers to spot and understand the effect bad weather has on birds more quickly.
Several thousand people submit sightings via the internet each week. Mike Toms, BTO head of garden ecology, says: “This winter we saw the average numbers of blackbirds increase throughout October and November before they suddenly fell away with the arrival of a mild and wet spell just before Christmas, bucking the normal pattern. The arrival of the cold weather and snow during the second two weeks of 2013 changed all this and we saw a sudden leap in the average numbers.
“In fact, for the week beginning 13 January, the average count (which was 5.51 individuals) is our second highest from a decade of recording.
“The snow that followed later that week may have driven even more blackbirds into our gardens, something that we’ll be able to report on after this ‘count’ week has ended and our observers can enter their records.”