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This year, Big Garden Birdwatch celebrates 40 years of a citizen science survey that gathers invaluable information for wildlife conservation

Big Garden Birdwatch

40 years of the

January is one of the best months of the year for bird watching. During cold winter weather, birds are more likely to visit our gardens in search of food. And – thanks to bare branches on trees and shrubs – when they do visit, they're easier to spot.


If you've never tried birdwatching before, the last weekend in January is an ideal time to start. This is the weekend of the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch – a nationwide citizen science event that is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year.

Blue tit

Big Garden Birdwatch started back in 1979, initially as a one-off event for children. Joining forces with BBC's Blue Peter, the RSPB called on viewers to find the nation's commonest birds.


In those pre-Internet days, participants had to record their findings on a form and post it in. And the survey was so successful and popular – around 34,000 people took part – that it became an annual event, and has gone from strength to strength.


Big Garden Birdwatch is now the world's largest wildlife survey. In 2018, 420,489 people took part, counting a staggering 6,764,475 birds.


This year, 40 years worth of data will have been collected – giving the RSPB annual information to monitor the UK's birds and assess which species are thriving and which are under threat or struggling.

Song thrush

Seeing how the different species are faring over time – and how they are adapting to challenges such as climate change – gives the conservation charity the opportunity to spot problems, and help put them right.


One such problem identified by the Big Garden Birdwatch was a decline in song thrush numbers. Back in 1979, survey results showed song thrushes to be in the top 10 of the UK's most common birds – but since then numbers have declined by around 70 per cent, and song thrushes have dropped to 27th in the rankings.


Long-tailed tits, meanwhile, have fared well. In recent years, the average number of these charismatic birds seen across the UK has increased by 44 per cent.


Take part

This year's Big Garden Birdwatch takes place over three days from Saturday 26 to Monday 28 January. It's easy to take part in the survey. Just spend one hour looking out for birds visiting your garden, and keep a record of all the birds you see. You can print off a counting sheet on the RSPB website to help you – and you'll also find instructions on how to submit your results.


Don't worry if you don't have a garden. You can spend an hour at your local park, or another green space – just note where you were when you send in your completed survey.

Filling out the Big Garden Birdwatch form

If you do choose to complete the survey in your garden, you'll have more success if you provide plenty of food – and a wide variety of different types of food – before the survey begins. Once you start feeding the birds, do continue to feed them through the winter, as they may come to rely on this food source for survival.


Blue tits and great tits love hanging bird feeders packed with energy-rich seeds, while blackbirds, dunnocks and wrens prefer to eat off the ground. Bullfinches, robins and goldfinches aren't that fussy about where they eat – just provide plenty of food and some clean water and sit back and enjoy the show!

Robin

What will I see?

Last years' most commonly seen birds were house sparrow, starling, blue tit, blackbird, wood pigeon and goldfinch. Robins, chaffinches and long-tailed tits were also frequent garden visitors.


If you offer plenty of food you're likely to see some of these common birds in your garden. But you may also be lucky enough to spot some more unusual visitors. Here are four species to look out for.

Siskins are small, attractive finches with distinctive forked tails, yellow streaked plumage, and (on the male) a black cap. They are winter visitors, and their numbers are higher in years when conditions here are more favourable than on the continent – for example during a mild winter – or when lots of their favourite foods are available. They particularly enjoy nyjer seeds.


Waxwings Although these aren't seen in gardens that frequently, there's a chance they might be spotted if conditions are harsh in their native Scandinavia. Waxwings are instantly recognisable – about the size of a starling and with a pale, pointed crest on top of their heads. Their wings are streaked with distinctive waxy red and yellow markings, which give the birds their name. Waxwings love berries – especially rowan berries – so keep a look out if you have berry-laden trees or shrubs in your garden, and the weather is very cold.

Waxwing
Siskin
Nuthatch

Nuthatch

Looking like a small woodpecker, with a blue-grey back, chestnut tummy and distinctive black stripe across its eye, the nuthatch is not a common garden visitor, but may sometimes be seen on feeders full of peanuts or mixed seed. It has a distinctive, loud and high-pitched call – you may well hear it before you see it!

Goldcrest

Goldcrest

You may be fortunate enough to spot a tiny goldcrest – along with the firecrest it's the UK's smallest bird, weighing in at just six and a half grams. Goldcrests are a dull greyish-green, with a pale belly and a black and yellow stripe on their heads – the stripe has an orange centre in males. They eat insects, so may be attracted to your garden if you offer suet blocks or pellets containing mealworms or insects. They may also search for invertebrates amongst log piles and rotting branches, or on tree stumps.


Birds and beyond

In recent years the Big Garden Birdwatch has expanded beyond birds. Since 2014 participants have also been asked about other wildlife that visits their garden – such as hedgehogs, badgers, foxes, grey squirrels, frogs and toads.


Helping the RSPB to see trends in other garden wildlife can inform conservation action, just as it has done with garden birds. And the more people that take part in these important citizen science surveys, the better. So spread the word and get your binoculars ready!

Little Green Space January 2019