Celebrating the world’s largest wildlife survey

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.”

The 'one-off' activity proved so successful that it grew into the regular event it is today. Although it wasn't until 2001 that we invited adults to join in the fun, too!

World’s largest wildlife survey

The popularity of the Birdwatch has grown year-on-year and now over 40 years later it is the world’s largest wildlife survey, with around half a million people regularly taking part. It is one of the biggest citizen science events around, as borne out by the stats.

  • Nearly 9 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 around 137 million

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. This species was a firm fixture in the top 10 in 1979, but by 2019 numbers of song thrushes seen in gardens had declined by 76%, coming in at number 20.

It’s a change that Ian recognises in his own experiences of the Birdwatch: “I always enjoy seeing a song thrush and love listening to 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 56 and 80 per cent respectively in gardens across the UK since the Birdwatch began.

As RSPB Director of Communications, Rebecca Munro acknowledges: “With nearly half a million people now regularly taking part, coupled with 40 years’ worth of data, Big Garden Birdwatch allows us to monitor trends and helps us understand how birds are doing. With results from so many gardens, we are able to create a 'snapshot' of bird numbers across the UK.”

It’s also true that there have been increases in some species. Great tits are up by 68% since the first Birdwatch and 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. In 2019, around two-thirds of those who responded had spotted a hedgehog during the year, while around three-quarters have seen a frog and just over half recorded a toad.

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 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.”