Gardens: Watch the birdies

Play your part in monitoring the health of our feathered friends
Play your part in monitoring the health of our feathered friends
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IT’S hard to imagine a garden without birds.

Plants and pots and patio furniture are all very well, but without the robin that comes hunting for worms after you’ve been digging or the blackbird that sings at the top of its voice, our gardens just wouldn’t be complete.

Garden birds might be a familiar sight, but over the last few decades there have been winners and losers, with startling declines in some bird populations, while others have flourished. One key source of information on how our garden birds are faring is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, a public survey that has taken place every year since 1979.

More than 600,000 people across the UK took part last year and Louise Smith of RSPB Scotland says that birds can give us an insight into the health of our environment. “The Big Garden Birdwatch has become a vital indicator of the state of some of our most recognised and common garden visitors,” she says. “The more people that take part, the clearer the picture we can paint of how our garden birds are doing. The results help highlight any worrying declines or raise any concerning issues. Identifying a problem is the first step in aiding a species recovery.”

Our gardens make an important habitat for birds, by providing two fundamental things they need to survive: somewhere to shelter and breed and somewhere to forage and feed throughout the year. “Plants, hedges, trees and shrubs offer ideal roosting or nesting sites, so that birds can raise their young or spend the night free from the threat of predators,” says Smith. “These plants also act as a natural source of food either providing seeds or berries or attracting insects, for garden birds to feed on.” Perhaps it’s the lack of leaves on the trees or the fact that many of us put food out for the birds, but garden birds seem particularly visible at this time of year. Many people enjoy watching them through the window on a daily basis, so how much additional work is involved in taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch?

Smith explains that the survey is open to everyone regardless of age, knowledge or experience. “All you need is a pen and paper, an ID book or the RSPB website (if your identification skills are a bit rusty), and one spare hour over 26 and 27 January to count the birds that visit your garden, local park or nearby nature reserve,” she says. Participants are asked to record the highest number of each bird species that land in their garden that they see at the same time (rather than counting the total over the hour as you may get the same birds visiting more than once). “We’ve even heard of three generations of the same family who have made it an annual tradition to huddle at the living room window, armed with an ID sheet and biscuits, ready to count their garden visitors,” says Smith.

When the results of the survey are compiled, plenty of interesting trends come to light. Smith explains that some population changes can be driven by a single element, such as the weather. For example, small-bodied birds such as the wren, coal tit and long-tailed tit are very susceptible to the cold weather and require a lot of energy (and therefore a lot of food) to survive freezing temperatures. There was a decline in sightings of these birds during the cold winters of 2009 and 2010, but after a few good breeding seasons they have started to recover. The most obvious loser over the years has been the starling – something that might come as a surprise to people as it remains one of the top five most commonly sighted birds. “The difference between now, and say 30 years ago, is that where once you may have spotted 15 or more of these highly sociable birds at any one time, nowadays, in some areas, you may see as few as two or three,” says Smith. Figures from the Big Garden Birdwatch in Scotland suggest that sightings of starlings have dropped by as much as 17 per cent over the past decade, but the exact reasons for this decline are unclear.

Some birds have been faring better, with blue, great, and long-tailed tits all making regular appearances in the top 20, year on year. Goldfinches have crept up the rankings and are now found in over a quarter of Big Garden Birdwatch gardens while the greater spotted woodpecker, a very distinctive red, black and white bird has recorded huge increases across the country. In 2012 this species was recorded in 14 per cent of gardens, compared to just three per cent in 2001.

Just about everyone taking part in the survey will want to know what they can do to make their gardens even more amenable to birds. Smith says that different species require different things and so the more varied the habitat in a garden, the more wildlife will be attracted. “Leaving areas of long grass, planting wild flowers, growing plants that provide seed and berries for birds, or creating an area of water for birds to drink or bathe in, are all examples of how to make a garden more wildlife friendly,” says Smith. Providing extra food and water, particularly during cold weather, is another way to attract different species to the garden. Smith points out that certain species favour certain foods, so to attract blackbirds and other members of the thrush family it is best to put out fruit such as apples and pears. Similarly, food bars or fat hung up or rubbed into the bark of trees is a great help for treecreepers and goldcrests.

You might want to get involved in “citizen science” and contribute to important conservation research or perhaps you just like the sound of finding out about the birds that visit your own garden. Either way, this survey is a great way to do it. And as Louise Smith points out, “whether it’s watching the starlings squabble over the feeders or a robin hopping about among the leaves, garden birds are extremely charismatic and having an hour to simply sit back and enjoy them is a real treat.”

• The 2013 Big Garden Birdwatch takes place next weekend on 26 and 27 January; visit