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The results of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch are in

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You may be interested, especially those of us who did the survey, that the results of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch came out this month.

A magpie. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A magpie. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Each January we are invited to record the birds we see over a period of one hour in our gardens, noting the highest number of each species seen at any one time.

Taken together and analysed across the nation, this gives a rough picture of how the different species have fared over the years and helps to indicate overall population trends.

This year’s Big Garden Birdwatch was the biggest ever with over a million people taking part, and more than 17 million birds counted, probably aided by the fact that so many of us were at home and in need of nature therapy – birdwatching being one of the easiest and best forms.

A woodpigeon. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A woodpigeon. Picture: Jonathan Heath

This year the top 10 species spotted across the UK were ranked as follows, and are broadly comparable with the rankings in 2020:

The Cambridgeshire results from the Big Garden Birdwatch (46212857)
The Cambridgeshire results from the Big Garden Birdwatch (46212857)

In pole position this year is the house sparrow, and indeed it has held this position for the 18th year running. I must admit that this surprised me a little as they rarely visit our garden, and it is well known that their numbers have dropped alarmingly in recent times.

But they are making a comeback and the decline now seems to be slowing. Since the survey began in 1979, house sparrow numbers have declined by over 50 per cent, but happily there has been a recovery in some areas, notably in Wales.

A long-tailed tit. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A long-tailed tit. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Blackbirds and robins have moved up the table, while greenfinches and chaffinches dropped out of the top ten. Chaffinch (12th) and greenfinch (20th) have not done so well and recorded their lowest numbers ever.

Starling has dropped from 2nd place last year to 3rd place this year, while blue tit has done the reverse. Robin has improved from 8th place to 6th. Blackbirds were seen in the most gardens, closely followed by robins, then blue tits and woodpigeons - the latter species now much commoner in towns and gardens than it was years ago.

Although it is good news that so many species of bird are being spotted in our gardens, nevertheless the picture for bird populations across the country is far from rosy and there are 19 million fewer pairs of breeding birds in the UK when compared with the late 1960s.

A house sparrow. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A house sparrow. Picture: Jonathan Heath

In terms of numbers breeding, the wren takes top spot across the country with an estimated 11 million pairs, followed by robin (7.3m), house sparrow (5.3m), woodpigeon (5.2m) and blackbird (5m).

There are still plenty of blackbirds around, but I rarely see a song thrush in the garden nowadays. The gradual decline of the song thrush is somewhat mysterious. Since the late 1960s they have declined, especially in farmland, perhaps because of the loss of hedges for nesting and pasture for feeding.

In the Garden Birdwatch in 1966 they were spotted in over half of gardens, while last year and this year they were recorded in only 9 per cent, and ranked a lowly 20th, just below greenfinch.

Having focused on the garden and feeders, at this time of the year I often gaze upwards, watching for the arrival of swallows and house martins.

A robin. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A robin. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Swallows have been seen nearby, and I expect by the time you read this I will have spotted some myself. House martins tend to arrive a little later. Last year there were still three or four nests under the eaves of the old Salvation Army shop in Covent Garden, and they have a stronghold at Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

The Covent Garden building is being renovated and I am worried lest the house martins desert the site. Fingers crossed! Swallows and house martins have unfortunately declined by 20-30 per cent over the last 10 years.

Both bring us joy when they make it back after their perilous migrations.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

Visit Martin’s author page for more articles like these:

Daffodils: An inspiration for centuries

The majesty of trees at Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Enjoy the birds around you - and help track their fortunes with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

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