If you found it dispiriting to spend an hour with your cup of tea, binoculars at the ready, and see absolutely no birds at all during the Big Garden Birdwatch (BGBW), it may be comforting to know that others had the same experience. However, be encouraged. Many more Wild about Bath members reported their results on our Facebook page than last year (not hard as the Facebook page hadn’t started then!). Quite a few people participated for the first time in their lives, assisted by the helpful talk (link to Nature Chain talk) by ???, which gave clues to identification and also sometimes alarming figures about the trends in the numbers of the common garden species. The results shared on our Facebook page and by email demonstrated that there are indeed some birds around in the area, even if not at my bird feeder!
Our results compared with the rest of the UK
The species seen most often in gardens in Monkton Combe, Combe Down and Southstoke were blue tits, robins, long-tailed tits, blackbirds and woodpigeons. Middling numbers of coal tits, carrion crows, magpies, great-spotted woodpeckers, dunnocks and nuthatches were viewed. The least frequently observed were goldcrest, marsh tit, jackdaw, jay, green woodpecker, chaffinch, goldfinch, song thrush and blackcap. In total, 28 different species were reported, which is pretty impressive. The RSPB are now encouraging reports from other spaces besides gardens and this is where we often had the greatest number of species e.g. Springfield Quarry and Monkton Combe churchyard. This may be due to those counts being done outside, so they weren’t focused on watching a birdfeeder from a window with a narrow aspect. We only have results from those who gave a full report on our Facebook page, and quite a few who saw very little didn’t report their results (perhaps next year a discreet email to firstname.lastname@example.org might be easier). Low or zero results are as useful as high numbers as they gives an idea of what comes despite the weather, the cats, etc. In my garden that would be wood pigeons, which have increased a whopping 1029% nationally since the 70’s.
Although Wild about Bath results for 2022 can’t be claimed to be a representative sample, we have virtually the same ‘top ten’ as were found in the RSPB’s own nationwide results from 2021 (their 2022 results will take a while to collate). House sparrows were most often seen by the over 1 million people who took part last year, followed in order by blue tit, starling, blackbird, wood pigeon, robin, great tit, goldfinch, magpie and finally long-tailed tit. This shows that our records are at least sufficient to be reliable. The most important thing for citizen science is to record your results. The ones we were missing were house sparrows and starlings, both traditional stalwarts of previous years of BGBW, but they are urban birds that are rapidly declining. House sparrow numbers are down nationally by 60% between the 1970s and 2004, and starlings similarly by 66%, from being the BGBW’s top bird in the first survey in 1979. Foxhill is the best area in our patch for house sparrows, partially due to thick hedges often found there. The general decline in house sparrows and starlings may be due to changing agricultural practices, but this doesn’t really explain why some species have increased – the long-tailed tit didn’t even register in the first BGBW, never mind making the ‘top ten’.
Nor is climate change an all-sufficient explanation, for example no-one seems to know why great tits have increased by 57% while chaffinches have declined by 68% and having been at one point the commonest bird in the UK. Winterwatch presenters Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan did explain in their recent series that the increase in feeding birds in gardens to help birds out during the winter may have had some unintended consequences. We often use hanging bird feeders which favour tit species, whereas the old fashioned bird table would allow for blackbirds, house sparrows and starlings, which now have to resort to picking up scraps from the ground under the feeders.
The steepest decline has been that of greenfinches, down 72%, and we may again have been unwittingly contributing, in that a viral disease, trichomonosis, which has decimated their population can be spread by contaminated bird feeders. Michaela recommended cleaning the feeders with a brush and disinfectant very regularly. Certainly greenfinches have been notable by their absence in this area in the last few years and they didn’t feature in our top ten. The owners of our favourite garden bird feeders on the road through Tucking Mill who have fed birds prolifically for years have noted a general decline in finches, including bullfinches, of which they used to have several breeding pairs.
BGBW Then and Now
Blue Peter and its fabulous editor for 23 years (Biddy Baxter) had a lot to do with the start up of the BGBW. Peter Holden, of the RSPB’s junior arm, the Young Ornithologist’s Club (YOC, now Wildlife Explorers) had to devise a practical project for each 2 monthly magazine. Biddy deemed the ‘Garden Bird Top Ten’ idea as suitable for television – as long as the results were in by the next week! Rather than the usual 700 or so responses from YOC members, 34,000 records were posted in (pre-internet of course). It was one of the best ‘write-ins’ that Blue Peter ever had, so it was repeated year after year. It was not until 2001 that the adults were allowed in! It coincided with the birth of the idea of ‘citizen science’ in the USA and of course the electronic gathering of data had become more possible. It became a model for other citizen science projects in the UK, such as the Big Butterfly Count, which takes place in August. Trends which weren’t apparent before, from smaller surveys, then became starkly clear, such as the decline of the song thrush and rise in numbers of collared doves, magpies and wood pigeons.
What is the real success of BGBW? Peter Holden reckons that it is “highlighting to a new public the population changes of common species”. If you can see changes happening in your very own garden, you are more likely to cooperate in actions to help those declining species.
Why should we take part?
What are the benefits of Wild About Bath collecting local data from the BGBW?
1. We hope it will encourage you to find that there are a good variety of bird species (and bird lovers) around here even if not in your garden.
2. It has encouraged us to hold a series of bird walks to help those who are finding some birds that they are not sure how to identify or who like to birdwatch in company.
3. It will be interesting to see how our local data vary over the years and whether there are changes we can make (like varying the kind of feeders that we use) to support more threatened species.
4. Seeing local examples of gardens that are very successful in supporting winter birds can help us try different methods and observe more carefully what we have. (Do put your data into the RSPB national survey as well – the deadline is Feb 20th for 2022).
5. It also alerts us to the observation that this year we have no records from young people, despite the BGBW being started with them in mind. Could we encourage our children, grandchildren, teachers, to spend an hour looking through the window at the end of January by next year?
By Ann Stuart
– With help from Nature’s Home (magazine of the RSPB) Winter/Spring 2022 p.31 “Birdwatch: the Back Story” by Peter Holden