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The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch: How the fortunes of birds have changed over the years



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The biggest wildlife survey in the world is back – and it is the perfect lockdown family activity.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch 2021, now in its 42nd year, runs from Friday, January 29 to Sunday, January 31.

The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch is the UK’s biggest citizen science project. Picture: RSPB
The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch is the UK’s biggest citizen science project. Picture: RSPB

Cambridgeshire residents have been urged to join in the citizen science project, which helps the conservation charity monitor the rise and decline of garden bird species.

More than 8,600 people in the county took part last year, and given the current restrictions, that number could rise this year.

Taking part is easy: You simply spend an hour recording the birds in your garden – or which you can see landing from your window or balcony – and then submit your results to the wildlife charity.

Importantly, you need to count the maximum number of each bird species that you see at one time – not the total number of each that you see over the hours. This is to prevent you counting the same birds more than once.

Mervyn Vickery, a representative of the RSPB Huntingdonshire local group, said: “The Big Garden Birdwatch is such a brilliant, simple and fun way of getting involved in conservation and connecting with nature – and you don’t even have to leave your home to do it, which is ideal during the current lockdown. The whole family can get involved and you don’t have to be a bird expert to take part.”

The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch tally chart 2020 - a printa ble version is available at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch
The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch tally chart 2020 - a printa ble version is available at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

In Cambridgeshire and across the UK, the most commonly seen bird last year was a house sparrow, with nearly two-thirds of those taking part spotting one and an average of five seen.

This was slightly more than the UK average, which was 4.7. But the really valuable information from the Big Garden Birdwatch comes from comparing the data over years.

It shows the average number of sparrows seen in our gardens have declined by 53 per cent since the survey began in 1979, which is partly a reflection of changing agricultural practices, particularly the loss of winter stubbles, which has affected their food sources. It is another good reason to feed garden birds.

There has been better news for blue tits over the last four decades. Nationally, we are seeing 20 per cent more of them than we did when the survey began, and they came second in the Cambridgeshire poll last year.

Households putting out winter food for birds and putting up nest boxes is believed to have played a big part in boosting the fortunes of the blue tits.

Long-tailed tits – beautiful, charismatic little birds with unfeasibly long tails – are another species that make good use of garden feeders in winter. With their black, white and pink feathers, they are often seen in packs, busily chirping to each other, and love fatballs.

They were ninth on the Cambridgeshire list in 2020, up one place on the previous year.

Take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Picture: RSPB
Take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Picture: RSPB

Starlings held on to second place in Cambridgeshire and the UK last year, but the average number seen has plummeted by 80 per cent since 1979, with intensive farming practices again believed to be a big factor.

While helping the RSPB create a snapshot of birds trends is one very good reason to take part, another is the simple enjoyment of taking time out to watch nature around our homes.

Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB, which is headquartered at The Lodge in Sandy, Bedfordshire, said: “We know that for many people, garden birds provide an important connection to the wider world and bring enormous joy.

“Lockdown brought few benefits, but the last year has either started or reignited a love of nature for many people. There has been a broad and much needed realisation that nature is an important and necessary part of our lives especially for our mental health and wellbeing. But nature needs us too.

“By taking part in the Birdwatch, you are helping to build an annual snapshot of how our birdlife is doing across the UK.

“It is only by us understanding how our wildlife is faring that we can protect it.

“We know that nature is in crisis but together, we can take action to solve the problems facing nature.”

A robin feeding. Picture: Chris Gomersall / RSPB
A robin feeding. Picture: Chris Gomersall / RSPB

How to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch

1. Pick a time: Choose any hour between January 29 and 31.

2. Count the birds you see in your garden or from your window or balcony. Due to the lockdown restrictions, the RSPB is not encouraging people to take part in local parks this year. Ignore any birds still in flight. To avoid double-counting, just record the highest number of each bird species you see at any one time – not a running total.

3. Submit your results at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch from January 29 until 19 February 19. Even if you do not see anything, that is valuable information to submit. You will also find resources and tips at this website.

Cambridgeshire’s Top 20 from 2020

Results from the 2020 Big Garden Birdwatch in Cambridgeshire
Results from the 2020 Big Garden Birdwatch in Cambridgeshire

UK Top 10 from 2020

Results from the 2020 Big Garden Birdwatch across the UK
Results from the 2020 Big Garden Birdwatch across the UK

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