People taking part in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 January) should watch how the birds use their garden as well as watching the birds themselves, says the RSPB. “Seeing things through the eyes of a bird will help you to understand exactly how they use what’s in your garden, spot anything that makes it an unsafe or inhospitable place, and allow you to improve the ways you give nature a home when spring arrives,” says RSPB conservation scientist, Dr Daniel Hayhow.
More than half a million people are expected to watch and count their garden birds during this weekend’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, which is now in its 36th year. The survey provides important information about the changes in numbers of birds using our gardens in winter, and helps alert conservationists to those species in decline like house sparrows, greenfinches and starlings.
Experts are interested to see how the mixed weather conditions around the UK so far this year affect the number of birds in gardens in different areas. Will numbers be low because natural food sources in the countryside are abundant, or will birds appear in their droves to make the most of garden feeders?
RSPB scientists are keen that, whatever the weather, as many people as possible take part.
“Daniel continues: “Whilst putting out food for birds is important, it’s not the be-all and end-all. Birds need a wide variety of plants to shelter and perch to be able to make use of the feeders we provide in winter, as well as nectar-rich plants that attract insects in summer. During this year’s Birdwatch look at how the birds approach your feeders using the various trees, shrubs and bushes. Making your garden more nature-friendly is the best way you can help the birds and other wildlife that use it – and by doing so you’ll attract even more to your garden for you to enjoy! ”
Last year, for the first time, the RSPB asked participants to log some of the other wildlife they see in their gardens to help build an overall picture of how important our gardens are for giving nature a home.
Participants don’t have to see and count these other species during the hour of the Big Garden Birdwatch survey. They just fill in the form to tell the RSPB how frequently they saw them in their gardens over the past year.
“It’s not always possible to survey other animals in the same way as birds, as they tend to be more secretive, nocturnal, less numerous or hibernating at the time the Big Garden Birdwatch happens. But this way the RSPB can find out where in the country these creatures appear and how frequently,” says Daniel.
Like last year, the RSPB will share the results with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC), People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and The Mammal Society to add to their species databases. Results will help all the organisations involved build their understanding about the threats facing garden wildlife.
This year, slow worms and grass snakes have been added to the list. Other species that will be surveyed again include badgers, hedgehogs, deer and foxes. Alternating the wildlife species surveyed each year will enable a system by which species are surveyed at least once every three years. This will provide sufficient data to determine whether distributions change over time.
Marina Pacheco, CEO of The Mammal Society said: “The best thing people can do for mammals in the garden is having a pond or ready source of water at ground level and gaps in their fences so that animals like hedgehogs can get into their gardens. We are very worried about the proliferation of concrete baseboards for garden fences as it’s keeping our wildlife out of gardens and reducing connectivity.”
Dr John Wilkinson from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), said: “Not many people realise how important gardens are for some reptiles and amphibians. If you can, having a compost bin will not only help recycle garden and kitchen waste but you might even get slow-worms setting up home in the warm, decomposing vegetable matter and if you’re very lucky grass snakes will find your heap and lay their leathery eggs in it! If reptiles do start using your heap, avoid turning the compost in summer and autumn when baby slow-worms and grass snakes are emerging.”
Henry Johnson, Hedgehog Officer, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, said: “Once again this massive survey is showing us how amazing gardens are for wild things. Brits still have hedgehogs visiting their gardens, and this is something to cherish as they are in trouble. Hedgehogs cannot fly and need lots of gardens to thrive so make sure yours is linked to your neighbours with a small (13cm2) hole. Then every British street can be a Hedgehog Street.”
Dr Daniel Hayhow from the RSPB, added: “This massive survey shows how important our gardens are for the amazing variety of wildlife living there. Adding slow worms and grass snakes to this year’s survey is a big step towards capturing more data to help us and our partners identify how the distribution of garden wildlife may have changed amongst a variety of species in coming years. Hopefully, the fact that more people are helping to give nature a home in their gardens and outside spaces will mean we’ll begin to see improvements rather than declines.”
The RSPB hopes to use the data to build an overall picture of how important our gardens are for all types of wildlife and tailor its advice so people can help their wild visitors find a home, feed and breed successfully.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is part of the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces – whether it by planting pollen-rich plants to attract bees and butterflies, putting up a nestbox for a house sparrow, or creating a pond that will support a number of different species. To find out how you can give nature a home where you live visit rspb.org.uk/homes.
You can register to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch and find out more by visiting at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch