As the RSPB’s Big Gar­den Bird­watch turns 40, Ben Hoare looks at how this ‘cit­i­zen sci­ence’ has charted the chang­ing for­tunes of our beloved birdlife

Countryfile Magazine - - Contents -

Since its hum­ble be­gin­nings in 1979, this much-loved cit­i­zen-sci­ence project has charted the rise and fall of the na­tion’s gar­den birds. Ben Hoare dis­cov­ers the win­ners and losers.

Nov­elty sweaters were all the rage and the av­er­age Bri­tish house cost £13,650. James Cal­la­han’s Labour Govern­ment was in its death throes, soon to be swept away by Mar­garet Thatcher. Ian Dury and the Block­heads’ Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick was knocked off the top spot in the charts by Blondie with Heart of Glass. And hun­dreds of chil­dren were busy fill­ing out forms to record which birds they had spot­ted in their gar­den.

Forty years ago, the week­end of 27–28 Jan­uary 1979 saw the first-ever Big Gar­den Bird­watch. The idea was beau­ti­fully sim­ple. You set­tled down for an hour, noted which birds vis­ited and jot­ted down the high­est num­ber of in­di­vid­u­als of each species; any fly­ing over didn’t count. Then you sent off the de­tails to the Young Or­nithol­o­gists’ Club, or YOC.

The brain­child of Peter Holden, ge­nial leader of the YOC – now known as RSPB Wildlife Ex­plor­ers – the sur­vey was an in­stant hit. Sack­loads of com­pleted forms started ar­riv­ing at RSPB head­quar­ters in ru­ral Bed­ford­shire. Holden re­alised he was on to some­thing, and the event be­came an­nual, al­ways held on the last week­end in Jan­uary. What he hadn’t an­tic­i­pated was how, over the years, the chang­ing re­sults would high­light win­ners and losers among our gar­den birds.

In just a few decades, sev­eral of Bri­tain’s most fa­mil­iar and best-loved species, such as the house sparrow, star­ling, song thrush and chaffinch, have ex­pe­ri­enced huge pop­u­la­tion

“Brits are re­puted to spend £200 mil­lion a year on wild-bird food”

de­clines un­der our very noses. Mean­while, oth­ers – among them the wood pi­geon, col­lared dove and goldfinch – have en­joyed spec­tac­u­lar booms. Birds once rare in ur­ban gar­dens and fairly un­usual even in leafier ru­ral ones – the great spot­ted wood­pecker and long-tailed tit, for ex­am­ple – are now com­mon vis­i­tors to our feed­ers al­most ev­ery­where.


In 2001, Richard Bash­ford be­gan man­ag­ing the project and it was opened to adults, too. “We thought, this thing has been hum­ming along nicely, why not get ev­ery­one to do it?” he says. “So we sent a pa­per form to every RSPB mem­ber and in­tro­duced on­line record­ing. And our web­site blew up. About 16,000 peo­ple tried to log on at the same time and it couldn’t cope.”

Two years later, Tony Blair got in­volved, host­ing a bird­watch with lo­cal school­child­ren in the gar­den of 10 Down­ing Street. Other lo­ca­tions have in­cluded pris­ons and John Len­non’s for­mer back gar­den. Around 600,000 peo­ple join in to­day. It is the world’s largest cit­i­zen-sci­ence project, where data is col­lected by mem­bers of the pub­lic.

Brits are re­puted to spend £200 mil­lion a year on wild-bird food, with one study find­ing 48 per cent of all house­holds feed the birds, so per­haps this peo­ple-pow­ered suc­cess is not sur­pris­ing. “The Bird­watch is a na­tional in­sti­tu­tion,” says Martin Harper, RSPB con­ser­va­tion di­rec­tor. “It’s an es­tab­lished part of the cal­en­dar; some­thing you can all do when it is a bit mis­er­able out­side. It brings peo­ple to­gether.”

“I saw Holden launch the first Big Gar­den Bird­watch on Blue Peter, and it sounded like fun,” re­calls Ian Barthorpe, who took part in 1979 and al­most every year since. This year, Ian is watch­ing with his 10-year-old son. “He will be in the con­ser­va­tory while I’m do­ing the wash­ing-up in the kitchen, so we’ll get dif­fer­ent views of our Suf­folk gar­den. A high­light a cou­ple of years ago was a tiny gold­crest. You never quite know what will turn up.” Herein lies the sur­vey’s en­dur­ing ap­peal: at heart, we are parochial crea­tures, most in­ter­ested in things go­ing on in our back­yards.

“What this sur­vey does is of­fer a snap­shot, on one week­end each year,” says Daniel Hay­how of the RSPB’s con­ser­va­tion sci­ence team. “But there’s a big­ger pic­ture. The birdlife of our own patch, how­ever large or small, doesn’t ex­ist in iso­la­tion. It is con­nected to what’s hap­pen­ing in the wider coun­try­side, as well as be­ing in­flu­enced by lo­cal, re­gional and na­tional trends.” Take the goldfinch. Its dra­matic rise up the gar­den-bird rank­ings al­most cer­tainly re­flects the grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of of­fer­ing sun­flower seeds, which in 1979 were a more ex­otic treat. It is also pos­si­ble to track the species’ spread north, prob­a­bly as­sisted by milder win­ters. “In Scot­land be­tween around 2004 and 2018, the av­er­age num­ber of goldfinches recorded dur­ing the Bird­watch in­creased by around 150% per gar­den,” Hay­how says. “In th­ese ar­eas, the goldfinch has moved eight places up the rank­ings on av­er­age.” The nuthatch has shown a sim­i­lar shift north into north­ern Eng­land and south­ern Scot­land.

The wood pi­geon is an­other big win­ner: its Bird­watch records shot up by 950% na­tion­ally from 1979 to 2018. “Wood pi­geons have ben­e­fited from a shift to grow­ing win­ter wheat, and they also breed year-round, rais­ing two or three broods,” says Hay­how. “Changes in both the coun­try­side and our gar­dens, such as bird-feed­ing, have mas­sively helped this graniv­o­rous species.”

It is ar­guably trick­ier to pin­point why the to­tals for the house sparrow, star­ling and song thrush plum­meted over the same pe­riod. The two for­mer species have re­tained their places at the top of the abun­dance ta­ble, while still crash­ing in over­all num­bers recorded. Prob­a­bly a mul­ti­tude of fac­tors are in­volved, says Hay­how. Agri­cul­tural in­ten­si­fi­ca­tion – the

loss of hedgerows, copses and weedy field mar­gins, a move away from mixed farm­ing to large mono­cul­tures, and enor­mous de­clines in in­sect biomass – is likely to loom large, though there may be many other fac­tors at play. There are glim­mers of hope. Al­though over­all num­bers of house spar­rows spot­ted by par­tic­i­pants has fallen by 57% since the Big Gar­den Bird­watch be­gan, over the last decade, the species has man­aged a 17% re­cov­ery. Spar­rows are also far­ing bet­ter in gar­dens in Wales and western Eng­land than fur­ther east.


But is the Big Gar­den Bird­watch data any good? Pro­fes­sor of or­nithol­ogy Tim Birk­head, among oth­ers, has ques­tioned the value of us­ing un­trained vol­un­teers as cit­i­zen sci­en­tists. He told BBC Wildlife Mag­a­zine re­cently that “look­ing at broad gen­eral trends by look­ing at large data sets can be use­ful,” but added, “there’s no point do­ing it un­less it’s re­li­able”. He warned that poorly or­gan­ised projects might amount to no more than en­joy­able “job cre­ation schemes” for Bri­tain’s army of wildlife lovers.

Find­ing in­con­sis­ten­cies in Big Gar­den Bird­watch data isn’t dif­fi­cult: ob­servers can pick any hour over the week­end, the date shifts slightly from year to year, dif­fer­ent peo­ple have vary­ing iden­ti­fi­ca­tion skills, and it’s hu­man na­ture to err on the gen­er­ous side and ‘mas­sage’ species counts up­wards to get a ‘de­cent’ to­tal. Martin Harper ac­knowl­edges this. “We’re talk­ing here about a par­tic­u­lar type of wildlife mon­i­tor­ing,” he says. “The RSPB also con­trib­utes to many more sci­en­tif­i­cally ro­bust, stan­dard­ised sur­veys, such as those run with the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy. But with Big Gar­den Bird­watch, it’s the sheer quan­tity of peo­ple tak­ing part that makes it im­por­tant – you iron out some of the ‘noise’ in the data. The re­sults are an early-warn­ing sys­tem of prob­lems in the en­vi­ron­ment. If we can say that star­ling num­bers in the sur­vey are down 80% in 40 years, and song thrushes down 75%, peo­ple sit up and take no­tice.”

There’s more to con­ser­va­tion than cre­at­ing na­ture re­serves and lob­by­ing gov­ern­ments to in­tro­duce greener poli­cies, im­por­tant as they are. “Con­ser­va­tion is also about us mak­ing that deep per­sonal con­nec­tion to na­ture,” Harper sug­gests. “This is a short, un­de­mand­ing sur­vey to do, but for many peo­ple it sparks a life­long in­ter­est in the nat­u­ral world. We’re in the midst of a deep eco­log­i­cal cri­sis and we’re only go­ing to get out of this mess if more peo­ple ‘get it’ and do some­thing. That starts at home.” The 2019 Big Gar­den Bird­watch is on 26–28 Jan­uary. Visit­watch or text BIRD to 70030.

Coal tit Rank­ing: 15th

Black­bird Rank­ing: 4th

Wren Rank­ing: 19th most com­monly seen gar­den bird in 2018

Peter Holden MBE was a teenage mem­ber of the YOC be­fore his ca­reer with the RSPB started in 1969. In 1975, he took the top job as YOC na­tional or­gan­iser and launched the Big Gar­den Bird­watch in 1979

Waxwing Rank­ing: 73rd

Ben Hoare is a wildlife writer and keen or­nithol­o­gist; in 2015, he was awarded the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy’s Dilys Breese Medal.

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