How do the stars #BigGardenBirdWatch? We chat to Chris Packham

TV Presenter, Naturalist and Vice President of the RSPB Chris Packham gives the low-down on the Big Garden Birdwatch and why everyone should take part.

Why do you do the Big Garden Birdwatch?

I like to do the Big Garden Birdwatch because it makes me focus on my bird feeder for an hour – actually monitoring what goes to and fro is always an eye-opener. Lots of little things pop in that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen, so I enjoy it personally.

But the other thing is that I am very keen to take part in any citizen science that I can. I love the idea of vast numbers of people - all with varied abilities - contributing to something that becomes meaningful through the weight of numbers. There’s no doubt in my mind that the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is one of the greatest pieces of citizen science that’s done anywhere on earth – so to play a tiny role in that is always a privilege.

How does the Big Garden Birdwatch make you feel?

For me the best things in life are birds, and the best birds in life are those that I live amongst. My garden birds – although they are not as exotic as the species I might chase around the UK or overseas to see – my garden birds are more important to me. I feed them, I look after them, I contribute to them and the reward that I get is that they come close to me and I get to see them in glorious, glorious full colour close-up.

My feeder is about two and a half metres from my kitchen and a metre from my lounge, so when I sit I can look at those birds – I don’t need my binoculars – and although many are familiar species, I’ve got a couple of special things that pop in, so last winter and the winter before I’ve been fortunate to have willow tits coming to my bird feeder. This has meant that once or twice people have encroached upon my kitchen space because they wanted to see willow tits – but I love the idea of being able to share my enthusiasm for my birds in my kitchen!

Chris Packham and Scratchy

Do you have any favourite garden birds?

My favourite garden bird is the sparrow hawk. I love feeding all of the other birds in my garden and they flock – greenfinches, vast numbers. In the winter I’m lucky enough to get siskins, lots of chaffinches, all of the familiar species.

But once in a while the sparrow hawk comes through and maybe once a year it nails a bird and takes it down onto the paving and I get a view of it. I like the idea of supporting not just the greenfinches and the blue tits but the entire food chain. So, although a lot of people wince when they have sparrow hawks on their patio dismembering their favourite robin or their favourite great tit or whatever it happens to be, it is actually significant that you are providing enough food – you and your neighbours – to support everything, including the almost top of the food chain predator in the form of a sparrow hawk.

I am also fortunate enough to have goshawks in my area and I suppose the dream come true is that the sparrow hawk takes the blue tit and then the goshawk takes the sparrow hawk. Although I’d be confused about my allegiances at that point!

What are your top tips for people doing the Big Garden Birdwatch?

Clearly if you want to do an effective Birdwatch you’ve got to prepare, and this means that you’ve got to keep your feeders stocked up for at least a week, maybe two weeks, previously – I mean they ought to be stocked up throughout the course of the winter of course – because you want that consistency of birds coming in. You’re only going to do the Birdwatch for an hour, and you need to be honest about it. There’s no point putting on things that you saw last week or you saw yesterday or you see a bit later. To generate proper, quality data, do the job properly.

So yes, make sure your feeders are filled for days before, and then on the day you need to make sure that you’re within reach of the kettle, the teapot, the coffee, the hot chocolate, the muffins or the Danish pastries. And you have your notepaper, your mobile phone is turned off so you can’t be distracted, and the TV is of course very much off, and you just look at the birds for an hour.

And it speeds by! Every time I’ve done it, I think, “Oh no, I’ve only got five minutes left.” So, it’s quite an intense process. I suppose I’m fortunate I’ve got quite a busy feeder, but even if you haven’t – can I just say one thing that’s really important? Negative data is as important as positive data. We need to know what you don’t see as much as what you do see. That’s critical – and I fear that lots of people think, “Hmmm, I haven’t got enough birds, or I didn’t see anything in the hour, therefore I won’t report it.” Wrong! Tell us what you didn’t see, tell us how few things you saw – that’s critically important.

What would you say to people who don’t have a garden or live in an urban area?

To make the Big Garden Birdwatch effective, we need as many people, in as many environments spread over as much of an area in the UK as possible. So, it doesn’t matter where you live, we want your data. If you live in the middle of the city, if you live in the middle of the country, if you live in the north of Scotland or in the south-west, in the middle of Wales, if you live up a tree, down a mine, we don’t care – we want your data.

For this survey to be successful, we need as many people in as many different environments as possible. We’re trying to put our finger on the pulse of the UK’s birdlife, and so we want absolutely everything. Now I’m fortunate I live in the country, so I get quite a lot of robins, I get quite a lot of greenfinches and goldfinches. I don’t get any house sparrows. I’ve never seen a house sparrow on my feeders. If you live in the city you might have sparrows and starlings, domestic pigeons – we want to know about your birds.

Why should people take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch?

I think we live in an age when a lot of people care about wildlife and the environment, but caring is no longer enough. We need to actually take some action to make a difference. The Big Garden Birdwatch is the best way for the UK to put its finger on the health of its birdlife. It gives us an instant snapshot. And due to the vast numbers of people who take part, any inconsistencies in the data are ironed out.

So don’t sit on your armchair, flipping through your Nature’s Home magazine, watching a re-run of Autumnwatch on TV. Stand up for an hour and count some birds. Do something. Don’t just care, take action.

Over the times you’ve been doing the Big Garden Birdwatch, what are the changes you’ve noticed?

I’m old, so I’ve been doing the Big Garden Birdwatch for a long time. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to do it every year because of various commitments but I’ve seen distinct changes in the birds that visit my feeders. Massive increase in woodpigeons. When I was a kid, woodpigeons were scardy birds. They might sit at the top of the trees but they were never coming down in that garden. We had masses of starlings, masses of sparrows, but we didn’t have many goldfinches. That has completely reversed. Now I’m fighting the goldfinches off my feeder – they’re scoffing all of my sunflower seeds! Now I’ve got no starlings, no sparrows whatsoever.

So in my lifetime, through this survey, we’ve recorded distinct changes in bird populations and distributions and that’s really important. We need to understand these things if we’re to look after these species and it’s really surprising isn’t it? Who would have thought when I first started doing Big Garden Birdwatch that we would have conservation concerns about starlings and sparrows. It would have been unthinkable – and at that stage to see a goldfinch in the garden was the kind of thing my Mum would get excited about. Things change. We’ve got to keep our finger on the pulse. That’s why it’s important we continue to the survey with gusto every year.

See how Chris Big Garden Birdwatches

Get your #BigGardenBirdWatch off to a great start with top tips from Chris.

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