Big Garden Birdwatch: why every count matters

UK’s largest citizen wildlife survey.

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It’s 45 years since the first Big Garden Birdwatch.

Last year, over half a million people looked out for birds, making Birdwatch the largest citizen wildlife survey in the UK.

Birdwatch is a truly unique collective effort which helps us build the picture of how our much-loved birds are faring.

Good news for Goldfinches...

Average counts of Goldfinches increased by 10% over the last decade.

These pretty finches entered the top 10 for the first time in 2008, and in 2023 came in at number seven. Great Tits have also been moving up the table. Now at number eight, they are up 54% since 1979. So, what’s going on? Both these birds will take advantage of the food we put out for them. As many of you putting out bird food will know, Goldfinches in particular will flock to feeders filled with sunflower hearts or nyjer seeds.

European Goldfinch perched on a branch with yellow leaves.

...and Great Tits

Great Tits too will take advantage of bird feeders and benefit from efforts we make to help wildlife, such as putting up nest boxes. These actions make a difference for some garden birds, and it could be that by feeding the birds, we are contributing to their success. The recent pattern of milder winters may also have helped as more birds are able to survive through the colder months.

A sad song for thrushes and Greenfinches

Big Garden Birdwatch was one of the first surveys to alert the RSPB to the decline in the number of song thrushes in gardens.

Since 1979 Song Thrush sightings have dropped by more than 80%. First ranked at number 10, in 2023 they came in at number 20. The number of Greenfinches recorded has also dropped by 66%, from number seven in 1979 to number 18 in 2023. Although Greenfinch populations declined in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the 1990s saw a drastic increase. The recent drop has been linked to trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease that prevents the birds from feeding properly. Sadly, this has caused Greenfinches to be added to the red list in the 2021 Birds of Conservation Concern report. You can help stop the spread by cleaning your bird tables and feeders weekly.

Keep them clean

Trouble at the top

Another bird that has shown a marked decline is the House Sparrow.

While these cheeky chappies may have ranked number one in the 2023 Birdwatch, a closer look at Big Garden Birdwatch data shows that numbers seen in the Birdwatch have dropped dramatically since the survey began, down 57% since 1979. In fact, the drop in their overall population in the UK, means that they are now on the red list, the highest level of conservation concern.

Understanding the decline

Exactly what is behind the decline is not clear, but together with other scientists, the RSPB is investigating what’s going on.

One project in Leicester found that House Sparrow chicks were suffering due to a lack of invertebrates to eat, while a team from the ZSL Institute of Zoology, in collaboration with the RSPB, found that 74% of London’s House Sparrows carry avian malaria, possibly influenced by our warming climate. There are some signs for optimism though. Big Garden Birdwatch 2023 figures suggested that House Sparrow sightings had grown by 10% in the last 10 years.

A juvenile House Sparrow sitting on a small branch with twigs surrounding it.

Road to recovery

The reasons behind the declines in garden bird sightings are complex and continue to be investigated.

Fewer green spaces, pollution and a changing climate are just some of the challenges faced by many birds. By better understanding what is happening we are better equipped to find solutions. We also know that many garden birds will benefit from any extra help that we give them. Looking back over the last 45 years, one thing Big Garden Birdwatch has revealed is that for some birds, our gardens are increasingly seen as places to find food, water and shelter during the winter.

Two adults and a child stood behind a glass door looking out into the garden, one of the adults and the child look through pairs of binoculars.

Take part

We know that many of you who enjoy doing Big Garden Birdwatch also give nature a helping hand through actions such as feeding the birds, putting up nest boxes and by wildlife-friendly gardening. And it’s actions like these that really can make all the difference. So take part in the Birdwatch with pride!

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