Celebrating 40 years of the Big Garden Birdwatch

Success measured in mail bags

Did you know that the Big Garden Birdwatch started out as an event for children? Back in 1979, the RSPB joined forces with BBC’s Blue Peter and called on children to let us know what birds they saw in their garden. Hundreds took up the call, and in those pre-digital days, dutifully posted in their findings. The early signs of success were there, with the RSPB team faced with an impressive 34 mail bags full of post to sort.

Our very own Ian Barthorpe, now a Visitor Experience Office at RSPB Minsmere, is one of those children who took part in the very first Birdwatch. He remembers it fondly:

“I was seven years old and watching Blue Peter. Peter Holden from the RSPB was on, and inspired me to take part. I was already a member of the Young Ornithologist’s Club (the RSPB’s then youth club) and this was an exciting opportunity to do something that I’d seen on the telly.”

World’s largest wildlife survey

The popularity of the Birdwatch has grown year-on-year and now forty years later it is the world’s largest wildlife survey, with around half a million regularly taking part. It is one of the biggest citizen science events around, as borne out by the stats.

  • Over 8 million hours have been spent watching garden birds since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979
  • The total number of birds counted as part of the Big Garden Birdwatch since 1979, is more than 130 million
  • In 2018, a staggering 8 million birds were counted during the Big Garden Birdwatch

A window into our wildlife

It’s an impressive amount of data, and the great thing about 40 years of the Big Garden Birdwatch is that we now have four decades of comparative results. The findings provide an important insight into how our wildlife is faring.

The Big Garden Birdwatch alerted us to the decline in song thrush numbers. Back in 1979 song thrushes comfortably occupied the number ten spot, but numbers in gardens have declined by around 70% over the last 40 years, and they have dropped to 27th in the rankings.

It’s a change that Ian recognises in his own experiences of the Birdwatch: “I always enjoy seeing a song thrush and love listening their song. They were always in the top ten seen during Big Garden Birdwatch but more recently they have dropped out, and we don’t see so many.”

Winners and losers

The Birdwatch has also shone a light on the declines of house sparrows and starlings. These birds have dropped by an alarming 57 and 80 per cent respectively in gardens across the UK since the Birdwatch began.

As RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke acknowledges: “Big Garden Birdwatch participants have made a significant contribution to monitoring garden bird numbers over the past four decades. Those taking part work together as part of a community with thousands of other Big Garden Birdwatchers to help the RSPB’s work to protect birds, other wildlife and the places they live.”

It’s also true that there have been increases in some species. In 2016 long-tailed tits flew into the Big Garden Birdwatch top 10, after the average number seen visiting gardens across the UK increased by 44 per cent.

RSPB Minsmere’s Ian has also seen some changes in his own garden over the years: “Back when I started, I wouldn’t expect goldfinches and long tailed tits. It was sparrows, dunnocks, chaffinches, robins, song thrushes and blue tits. Now there seems to be a much bigger variety of birds: goldfinches, long tailed tits and even siskins are much more common.”

Changes in the climate would also seem to be having an impact. Over recent decades blackcaps have also seen increasingly in gardens in winter. Although these birds are primarily summer visitors to the UK, some are spending the milder winters in the UK rather than migrating further south in Europe.

Wild and wonderful

The Birdwatch is also not without its oddities and sometimes some very unusual visitors turn up, including an American robin in Putney, a black-throated thrush on the Isle of Bute, and a common rosefinch in Yorkshire. In 2014, a yellow-rumped warbler, which usually spends winter in South America, turned up in a garden in Durham.

Less unusual but no less thrilling was the explosion of waxwings visiting gardens in 2017. Usually found feasting on berries in Scandinavia, these winter visitors come to the UK when there is a lack of food in their native countries. In 2017, waxwings were seen in around 11 times more gardens compared with the last couple of years.

More than a bird survey

In recent years the Big Garden Birdwatch has expanded beyond birds. Since 2014 we’ve asked people about other wildlife that visits their garden. Through this, we now know that only 25% of people see hedgehogs in their garden at let one a month. This year we’re asking people to tell us about their sightings of badgers, foxes, grey squirrels, red squirrels, muntjac deer, roe deer, frogs and toads.

The joy of taking part

Despite any differences across the years, it’s clear that what unites the Big Garden Birdwatch across time and among those taking part is the pure sense of excitement and joy that the Birdwatch brings, as well as the involvement in citizen science. Asked why people should take part, Ian explains: “It’s great fun and it’s incredibly valuable – a source of great year-on-year data about our garden birds. And it’s a great way to take time out, come together and enjoy wildlife.”

It’s a view echoed by many of Big Garden Birdwatchers that we’ve spoken to, including TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham. Describing his love for the Birdwatch, Chris Packham explains: “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.”