Explore your wild side with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

It’s time to take a closer look at the nature on your doorstep.

By Charlie Bullough
Tuesday, 14th January 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Tuesday, 14th January 2020, 5:48 pm
A mother and her daughter counting birds in their garden for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Photo: Eleanor Bentall.
A mother and her daughter counting birds in their garden for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Photo: Eleanor Bentall.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch returns from January 25 to 27.

The annual citizen science survey, where people are encouraged to spend an hour counting the birds in their backyard, helps provide the RSPB with a barometer about how our feathered friends are coping.

RSPB wildlife gardening expert Adrian Thomas said: “The brilliant thing about the Big Garden Birdwatch (BGB) is twofold. One is how many people take part. Close on half a million take part every year. And when you’ve got that sheer volume of people participating then you are really getting a brilliant snapshot of how garden birds are faring, which is a lovely way of health checking the nation’s wildlife, or at least those straight outside our back door.

A starling. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

“The second reason why it is useful is its long-running nature.”

The BGB is 41-years-old and the same format allows the RSPB to gauge just how well or badly species are doing over the long and short term.

Last year the house sparrow remained at the top of the Big Garden Birdwatch rankings as the most commonly seen garden bird. There were more than 1.2 million recorded sightings.

But Adrian said it wasn’t always the case, adding: “In the early days of the BGB the starling was seemingly immovable at number one. It was the Bryan Adams of the bird world. You just wouldn’t have thought anything could have toppled the starling.”

A goldfinch looking around from a bare twig.

It’s now down in second and Adrian feels it could drop even further over the next few years. In 1979 there was an average of 15 starlings per garden in the survey, now that is down to just three per garden. Adrian said perhaps the most revealing statistic is that starlings are recorded in only two out of every five gardens in the BGB.

Another loser over the last ten years has been the greenfinch. It has suffered from a disease called trichomonosis, which affects the bird’s digestive system. Adrian also fears that the ailment is beginning to have an affect on chaffinches too.

But there have been some notable successes like the wood pigeon and the goldfinch. The latter has benefited enormously from people putting out mixed seed in their gardens.

Adrian says it’s now possible to see flocks of 20 or more of “feisty and querulous” goldfinches in the garden. The RSPB official, who has written a book on wildlife gardening, believes supplemental feeding can be a lifeline for birds, particularly in winter. But he encourages people to keep up good hygiene on and around their feeders as they can be a breeding ground for disease.

a greenfinch perched on blossom. Photo: Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Another thing people can do to encourage wildlife into their garden is to grow plenty of plants. The expert added: “I normally start when I’m talking about gardening for wildlife with ‘plants, plants, plants’. They are the basis of the food chains of everything in the garden, whether it be the worms that are taking in the dead leaves that fall from the plants, whether it be the berries or the seeds that the plants produce or the moths, caterpillars and eggs that so many of the birds rely on. Having a plant-filled garden really is the bedrock of having a wildlife-rich space.”

Connecting with nature is also another key element of the BGB. Adrian said: “I’m a champion of the benefit people can have from engaging with wildlife straight outside their kitchen window. It’s lovely to think half a million or more people are getting the delight of enjoying the drama, the soap operas and the comings and goings of all the birds out there.”

Experiencing nature can also have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.

The nature author added said: “More and more research has been coming out, particularly over the last three or four years, which is showing that even just looking at greenery helps your mental health.

A family observing wildlife during the Big Garden Birdwatch. Photo: RSPB.

“The thing I’m really passionate about is if you went back ten or 15 years and asked, ‘What are the major wildlife habitats in the UK?’ gardens would never get a mention. And now we are recognising, at last, the value gardens have. They are not a replacement for some of the amazing habitats that are out there like the big wetlands and the moors. Nevertheless the biodiversity within a garden, particularly within a garden managed with wildlife in mind, is just astonishing for the range of moths, birds and all sorts of wildlife.”

Adrian added: “In having a garden you have you have the great privilege of owning and looking after a little piece of this beautiful planet of ours. I think that’s an amazing opportunity for us all to connect with our planet.”

Adrian Thomas, of the RSPB, planting a tree.
RSPB wildlife gardening expert Adrian Thomas gathering wood.