Goldfinches among the Cambridgeshire winners in 2018 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch
Small garden birds fare well thanks to favourable conditions
More than 8,400 people across Cambridgeshire took part, contributing to the largest citizen science project in the country.
The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is a fascinating survey of how our garden birds are faring.
And the results of this January’s survey – the 39th – have now been revealed.
A surge in sightings of goldfinches, long-tailed tits, coal tits and other small garden birds has been put down to favourable breeding conditions last summer and a relatively mild early winter.
But those milder conditions seen in January – long before we had been visited by the Beast from the East – is also thought to have kept some solitary species like blackbirds and robins out of our gardens as they foraged for natural food sources.
Those taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatchare asked to watch their garden or outdoor space for an hour over a particular weekend and record the maximum number of each species seen at one time. This method prevents the same birds being counted more than once.
In Cambridgeshire, as across the UK, the house sparrow topped the Birdwatch table, which is ranked by the highest number of birds seen at one time.
The average count here was 4.5 sparrows and nearly two-thirds of those taking part in the survey in Cambridgeshire saw at least one.
Top 10 birds in Cambridgeshire in RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch 2018
1. House sparrow
5. Collared dove
6. Blue tit
8. Great tit
9. Long-tailed tit
The species has nonetheless suffered serious declines since the survey began – dropping 57 per cent nationally since 1979.
The starling took the second spot on the bird table, both locally and nationally. They visited more than half of gardens during the hour birdwatchers were counting in Cambridgeshire, but there is serious concern about them too, as their numbers nationally have dropped a massive 80 per cent since 1979.
The weather can play a significant factor in what is visiting our gardens and the survey found a countywide dip in recorded sightings of blackbirds (-23 per cent), robins (-14 per cent) and wrens (-21 per cent) compared to last year.
Daniel Hayhow, RSPB conservation scientist, said: “We all will have noticed that the weather earlier in the winter was slightly warmer than we’re used to, and our garden birds have felt this too.
“It’s usual for there to be more food available in the wider countryside during a mild winter, meaning birds are less reliant on the treats we put out on the garden feeders.
“However, unlike the finches and tits, robins and wrens did not have a good breeding season in 2017 and data from other surveys indicates that their numbers may be down overall this year.”
Nonetheless, blackbirds were still spotted in 92 per cent of Cambridgeshire gardens, with an average of 2.7 per garden at any one time, meaning the species clung on to third spot in the county table. Nationally, blue tits overtook them.
Blackbirds are more common in our gardens now than they were in 1979 – up seven per cent nationally.
But the species that has become a much more common sight in our gardens since the start of the survey is the collared dove, which is up 952 per cent and came fifth in the county table, behind woodpigeon.
Another species that has become more common in our gardens is the brightly-coloured goldfinch.
Recorded sightings of its red face were up 15 per cent in Cambridgeshire this year. It was seen in nearly two-fifths of gardens, with an average count of two per garden.
Our growing tendency to put out food like sunflower hearts and niger seeds is believed to be a factor in the increasing presence of goldfinches in gardens.
But it is also thought to have benefited from good breeding conditions last year and a mild autumn and early winter, as did other small birds like long-tailed tits (+13 per cent), coal tit (+17 per cent), and blue tit (+4 per cent).
Daniel said: “Last summer was a really good year for many breeding birds, with warm weather creating great conditions for many smaller birds to raise their young to adulthood.
“The rise in sightings of goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit, along with chaffinches and greenfinches, goes to show that in the absence of cold weather they can survive the winter months in good numbers.
“Looking at the results it is likely that across the UK this is what people are seeing in their gardens.”
Greenfinch sightings rose 20 per cent across the county. This is a welcome sign, as the species has suffered a 60 per cent decline in the UK since 1979. It has suffered in particular in recent years from a disease of the back of the throat and in the gullet known as trichomonosis.
The disease can be spread on bird feeders, so the British Trust for Ornithology advises regular cleaning using specially-designed commercial products or a weak solution of domestic bleach (five per cent sodium hypochlorite).
Feeders should be rinsed and air dried before reusing, and their positions rotated. Bird baths should be emptied and air-dried daily.
Across the Eastern region more than one million birds were counted, contributing to an incredible 6.7 million counted nationally.
Daniel added: “Our garden birds are a part of our everyday life, whether it’s the robin perched on the garden fence or the flock of starlings you see on your way to work.
“To have hundreds of thousands of people spend an hour watching the wildlife in their garden isn’t only great to see, but it also helps us build up a picture of how our garden birds are doing, which is really helpful.”
During the first half of the spring term, schoolchildren took part in the RSPB’s Big Schools Birdwatch. In Cambridgeshire, 1,200 schoolchildren spent an hour counting the birds.
Despite the drop in Big Garden Birdwatch sightings, the blackbird remained top of the Big Schools Birdwatch rankings with one being spotted in 88 per cent of schools, which was 22 per cent up on 2017.
For more, visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.