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 are expected to watch and count their garden birds this weekend in what is the world's largest garden wildlife survey.
For almost 40 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.
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 per cent since 1979.
'With so many people now taking part, the results we get from gardens are very valuable'
Dr Daniel Hayhow, RSPB Conservation Scientist, said: "Last year's survey was another great year for participation. More than half a million people took part and more than 8.5 million birds were spotted in gardens across the country.
''With so many people now taking part, the results we get from gardens are very valuable. And as the format of the survey has always been the same, this data can be compared year-on-year.
''The results help us create an annual 'snapshot' of bird numbers across the UK, which, combined with over 30 years' worth of data, allows us to monitor trends and understand how birds are doing."
Whether the weather is warm or cold...
With the last month of 2015 being reported as the wettest and warmest December on record but with temperatures since varying between freezing and unseasonable mild, the results from Big Garden Birdwatch will also help the charity understand how these unusual weather conditions have affected birds visiting gardens this winter.
Ben Andrew, RSPB Wildlife Advisor, said: "If the UK experiences a continuation of these milder temperatures, those taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch may notice their gardens quieter than in other years. The milder weather means that there is more food available in the wider countryside, with birds being less reliant on garden feeders.
'However, winter is a hard time for our garden wildlife so it's still vital that people keep their feeders stocked up with a variety of energy-rich food so birds can find food whatever the weather. Either way, mild or cold, it will be fascinating to see how the birds respond this weekend."
What else visits your garden?
For the third year running, the RSPB 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. 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.
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."
Giving nature a home
The survey is part of the RSPB's Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK's threatened wildlife. The RSPB is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces - whether it's putting up a nestbox 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 download 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 birdsong on their website as a soundtrack for the birdwatch. 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.
The parallel event, Big Schools' Birdwatch, takes place from 4 January-12 February.