Golden age for finches but other birds at risk

THE twittering song of the goldfinch is becoming increasingly common in gardens across Britain, with the colourful birds spotted outside 78 per cent more homes last year than the long-term average.

It is thought the sociable, red-faced finch has benefited from a trend to put out specialist foods such as nyjer seed and sunflower hearts on bird tables.

However, other species have not done so well over the past year, according to the British Trust for Ornithology's annual Garden BirdWatch.

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Song thrushes, already seeing a worrying decline, saw the greatest fall in sightings among the 15,000 households that took part in the survey. It was seen in 22 per cent fewer gardens in 2009 than the long-term average (calculated from 1995 to 2008).

The song thrush has been declining in the UK for the past 60 years, with ornithologists blaming loss of suitable habitat such as hedgerows due to the intensification of farming.

The long-tailed tit was reported in 30 per cent more gardens and wood pigeons increased by 26 per cent. However, wrens were seen in 20 per cent fewer gardens and starlings declined by 19 per cent.

Tim Harrison, BTO Garden BirdWatch development officer, said: "One of the key factors in the increase in goldfinches might be the foods that people are providing now."

Similarly, the long-tailed tit may be benefiting from suet-based foods often put out in gardens, which helps the small birds survive over the tough winter months, he said. And he suggested people could start to help song thrushes by putting out the sort of foods they need. They rely on soil-dwelling creatures, such as worms, particularly in the months after the breeding season.

Live foods, such as mealworms, are now easy to buy and could be put out to help boost numbers, Mr Harrison said.

About 40 per cent of people with gardens now put out food for birds, research by BTO shows. This equates to about 50,000 tonnes of bird food a year, with 200 million spent on food and related equipment.

However, some people have found that rather than helping smaller, vulnerable species, the food has been devoured by a larger bird sometimes regarded as a pest – the wood pigeon.

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The wood pigeon was spotted in 26 per cent more gardens in 2009 than the year before – and is now seen in more gardens than the robin. Each eats as much as seven sparrows.

"The wood pigeon has the dubious accolade of being the most economically damaging species of bird in Britain and Ireland," said Mr Harrison.

"Some people aren't keen on them because they put out food and the wood pigeons come and hoover it all up. So it might put off the small birds, but it also leaves them out of pocket."

Another bird that did well last year was the jackdaw, up 19 per cent. Jackdaws are catholic in their foraging habits, making the most of any food put out.

The great spotted woodpecker went up by 15 per cent.

However, greenfinches declined by 16 per cent. A disease called trichomonosis, caused by a parasite, appears to be taking its toll on the species, with a slow but steady decline evident since 2006. It is spread through the saliva of an infected individual on bird food or in bird baths.

House sparrow numbers dropped by 15 per cent, continuing a long-term decline.