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Join in the world's largest wildlife survey

Last modified: 29 January 2016

Male house sparrow in bush

Image: Steve Round

People taking part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch will be providing conservation scientists with valuable data about the changes in numbers of birds using our gardens in winter, enabling them to help protect our wildlife for future generations. More than half a million people across the UK are expected to watch and count their garden birds this weekend in what is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey. Last year over 43,000 people took part in Scotland and counted over 630,000 birds. For almost forty years, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch has helped raise awareness of those species in decline like starlings and song thrushes, whose numbers have dropped by an alarming 80 and 70 per cent respectively since the Birdwatch began in 1979. [note 2] There is slightly better news for the house sparrow, as its long term decline appears to have continued to slow and it remains the most commonly spotted bird in our gardens. However, its numbers have dropped by 58% since 1979. Keith Morton, Species Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland said: “It’s great that so many people took part in last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch. It’s something that everyone can get involved with and the results help RSPB Scotland to paint a picture of how birds are faring over winter.

“Big Garden Birdwatch is now in its 37th year and the format has stayed the same since the very first one which allows us to compare our annual snapshots of how birds are doing. Both house sparrows and starlings, the top two birds in our 2015 results, are red list species so getting data on them and other birds every year from people spending an hour watching who visits their garden is very important.” With the last month of 2015 being reported as the wettest and warmest December on record and the recent cold snap across Scotland in January, the results from Big Garden Birdwatch will also help the charity understand how recent unusual weather conditions have affected birds visiting gardens this winter.

Keith continued: “Gardens are important for our wildlife all year round but particularly during colder winter months. The drop in temperature earlier this month means that birds would have been be really reliant on the food and water, especially fat balls, that people left out for them.

“Even in milder winter weather it’s still important to keep topping up feeders and bird baths as once birds know where they can find a reliable source of food and water they’ll keep coming back. These small things make a big difference to birds and you might find your garden much busier with feathered visitors because of them.” For the third year running, RSPB Scotland is also asking participants to log some of the other wildlife they see in their gardens throughout the year such as hedgehogs, foxes, stoats and squirrels, to help build an overall picture of how important gardens are for giving nature a home. These results will be shared 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. [note 4] Dr Fiona Mathews, Chair of The Mammal Society, said: “Gardens can offer fantastic habitat for wild mammals, simply leave things a bit untidy and watch what happens.  For example, a bramble patch and a pile of fallen leaves can provide a good nesting site for hedgehogs, whilst bats will feed on night flying-insects attracted to blackberry flowers.” Dr John Wilkinson from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), said: "It's great to see that the Big Garden Birdwatch is again recording species such as grass snakes and slow-worms, whose habitats are declining in the wider countryside. Gardens are crucial habitats for much of the UK's pressured biodiversity and you can, for example, encourage slow-worms into your garden by having a compost heap which is left undisturbed over the summer so they can give birth there - they will repay you by demolishing your slugs! If you're lucky, grass snakes may even use your heap for egg-laying." David Wembridge, Mammal Surveys Co-ordinator, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, said: “Mammals are less showy lot than birds but their presence in gardens is just as important an indicator of the natural value of these green spaces. Recording wildlife as part of the Big Garden Birdwatch lets us see how rich, surprising and precious our wild neighbours are.” The survey is part of RSPB Scotland’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing our threatened wildlife. RSPB Scotland is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces – whether it’s putting up a nest box for birds, creating a pond to support a number of different species or building a home for a hedgehog. The Big Garden Birdwatch is just one of the steps you can take to help nature near you. To take part, simply request a free pack from the RSPB website or register your details to save time on the weekend. The RSPB will be live blogging throughout the weekend and offering downloadable bird song on their website as a soundtrack for the bird watch. If you fancy a sweet treat whilst counting the birds, delicious new cake recipes from Frances Quinn, winner of the Great British Bake Off 2013, will also be available on our website. For more information, visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.

The parallel event, Big Schools’ Birdwatch takes place on 4th January- 12th February 2016. Further information can be found at rspb.org.uk/schoolswatch

How you can help

Nature in the UK is in trouble and some of our more familiar garden species are amongst those suffering serious declines. We can all help by giving nature a home where we live.

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