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Quick Reads

The RSPB Tells Us Why We Should Take Part in The Big Garden Birdwatch

Dig out your binoculars because the Big Garden Birdwatch is coming! From 28th-30th January, many people will be watching expectantly at their garden to see how many birds they can spot. This event helps the RSPB build a picture of garden wildlife across the UK.

We got in touch with the RSPB, and the results of our questions below. After you read this article, go ahead and visit the RSPB website to download the pack full of fascinating facts, tips and advice.

Mother pointing to a bird, Big Garden Birdwatch event, Cambridgeshire, October 2013

Image Credit: Rahul Thanki via RSPB

Question: Why does Birdwatch take part at this time of year as opposed to the spring or summer?

Winter is a great time to see birds in your garden as there are no leaves on the trees or foliage for birds to hide in. Often food is scarcer in the wider countryside at this time of year so birds will be more likely to be searching for food in gardens and therefore there’s plenty to see and enjoy.

There are a number of large-scale surveys monitoring birds during the breeding season (spring and summer) but fewer that monitor birds during winter which makes these results particularly interesting. There are also migrant birds that spend some or all of the winter in the UK (e.g. redwing, fieldfare, waxwings) which would be missed by a summer survey.

Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, looking around from a bare twig, Co. Durham, November

Goldfinch. Image Credit: John Bridges via RSPB

Question: When did it start? What was the motivation behind it originally?

Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1978 as a collaboration between the junior branch of the RSPB and BBC’s Blue Peter. In the first year RSPB staff had to sort through 34 bin liners of post which were observations from BGBW sent in by the public.

The BGBW began to grow in popularity among adult RSPB members in the mid 1980s when it was discovered that numbers of song thrushes were falling dramatically. These birds were at number 10 in 1979 but now don’t even make the top 20.

Question: Were there any surprising results from 2015 and 2016? Do you expect different results this year?

Some very unusual and exotic birds have ended up being recorded in gardens over the years, including an American robin in Putney, black throated thrush on the Isle of Bute, common rosefinch in Yorkshire, and a little bunting in Gloucestershire.

In 2015, there were fewer finches visiting our gardens, perhaps due to a good natural seed supply found in the wider countryside. Last year, the tiny long-tailed tit made it into the Big Garden Birdwatch top 10 for the first time in seven years. Experts linked the increase in sightings of long-tailed tits, as well as other smaller gardens birds such as coal tit and great tit, to the mild weather in the months leading up to the 2016 Birdwatch.

This winter there have been reports of waxwings arriving from Scandinavia in their hundreds which might mean these exotic visitors are spotted in gardens during RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Known as an ‘irruption’, this only occurs every 7 or 8 years when the food supply in their breeding grounds is short.

Only for use in Big Garden Bird watch press release. Coal tit Parus ater, Aberdeenshire, October

Coal Tit. Image Credit: Genevieve Leaper via RSPB

Question: Is it true that once you start leaving food out you must keep it up? Why is this? What is the best way to leave food out, perhaps is there a particular birdfeeder you recommend?

Feeding garden birds can help give them a better chance of survival during winter months when natural food sources are scarce. Once you establish a feeding routine, it’s best to stick to it to help ensure your feeders are visited consistently. Remember to clean your feeders regularly and keep an eye on demand – don’t let uneaten food accumulate as it can spoil and harbour moulds and bacteria that can cause disease.

There is nothing wrong with teacup feeders as long as you can keep the contents dry and they are cleaned regularly. However some novelty bird feeders could be unsuitable as they may be hard to clean, or have sharp parts which could be a danger to birds. There is a range of suitable designs available from the RSPB shop.

Greenfinch Carduelis chloris, male perched on lichen covered branch

Greenfinch. Image Creidt: Ben Hall via RSPB

Question: Is there anything people without gardens can do?

People without gardens can absolutely still take part! You don’t need a huge garden – or indeed any garden at all – to help wildlife and feed garden birds. Just a simple feeder on a balcony will do, and we even have feeders which can be affixed to windows, allowing you and your family an extra close-up view of birds feeding. Big

Garden Birdwatch can be also be done from your local park or green space. You could also give nature a home by installing nest boxes, including much-needed boxes for swifts; not that we see these summer visitors in January of course!

Question: What does the data of people taking part in this event in the last years say about the British people? Are we more involved, are we more concerned with our environment? Is there still a long way to go?

At the RSPB, we believe those who know and care about wildlife are more inclined to help protect it. So the fact that more people are taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch every year – the number of participants doubled between 2003 and 2016 – is very encouraging.

Birdwatch is especially important in getting children interested in the natural world around them. If a child whose imagination is sparked by doing their first Birdwatch goes on to work in conservation, then that’s a win for nature.

However there is still a long way to go. Nature is in trouble here in the UK and around the world, and the more we as individuals do to help it, the more we can keep it safe for future generations to enjoy.

Family recording bird visits, Big Garden Birdwatch event, Cambridgeshire, October 2013

Image Credit: Rahul Thanki via RSPB

Question: And finally, why is it important to take part in this event?

Taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch is a chance to take time out of our busy lives to connect with the nature on our doorsteps. It also helps provide an invaluable overview of garden wildlife across the country. By comparing results to those of previous years, we can monitor trends and work out which species may need help. Take the song thrush – a melodic, tool-using bird which many remember fondly from childhood. Our statistics show they have declined in UK gardens by 70% since the Birdwatch began. On a cheerier note, your data also helps us note species on the up, such as long-tailed tits. So fill up your feeders, reach for a cup of tea and enjoy spending a relaxing hour with your feathered neighbours.

Filling in survey form, Big Garden Birdwatch event, Cambridgeshire, October 2013

Image Credit: Rahul Thanki via RSPB



Community User

The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) was founded by two women in 1889 to oppose the use of feathers in hats. It is now the largest nature conservation charity in the country, protecting wildlife and habitats the world-over and inspiring others to stand up and give nature the home it deserves.