THE RSPB’S BIG GARDEN BIRDWATCH TURNS 40
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
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.
CREATION OF A NATIONAL INSTITUTION
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.
THE RELIABILITY FACTOR
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. Visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch 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.