Top of the bird tables: RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch

PUBLISHED: 11:37 15 December 2009 | UPDATED: 16:28 20 February 2013

Blackbird on boot

Blackbird on boot

Be Bill Oddie for an hour by taking part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch this January. Now in its 31st year it's the world's biggest wildlife survey

Keep a space free in your diary at the end of this first month of the year and set aside just one hour of your time to turn twitcher cum conservationist.

Although you might feel a bit strange becoming Bill Oddie for a full 60 minutes, simply by counting the birds you see in that space of time in your garden youll be doing your bit towards protecting key garden species in our region, a number of which, sadly, are seeing a decline.

Were talking about this years Big Garden Birdwatch event organised by the RSPB on the weekend of January 30 to 31.

Even if you dont have a garden of your own you can still take part on the big day, either by doing your hour-long bit of bird research down the local park, or if you cant get out and about, simply by attaching a seed feeder to your window and recording the birds that visit it during the hour you choose to take part.

In fact you neednt leave the comfort of your sofa if you dont want too. It stands to reason that if you move about a lot you run the risk of disturbing the very birds you want to count - this truly is an occasion where armchair conservation probably works best - so grab a pen and paper, break out the Rich Tea biscuits, pour yourself a cuppa and wait for the avian action.

Alternatively, you could make this years Big Garden Birdwatch a family affair by enthusing kids or grandchildren to take part.

If youre worried the birds will spook at the prospect of you and assorted relatives peering at them through the patio windows you can always turn your home into a giant bird hide by sticking paper over the windows. Remember, however, to leave a few slits at different heights to accommodate the age range of those gathered for the event so you can actually see out!

Staying indoors isnt the lazy option remember. Theres no need to feel guilty keeping within your comfort zone on a chilly January weekend because doing so lessens the chances of anyone in your group inadvertently scaring off the birds.

If youve never come across the strange phenomenon thats the Big Garden Birdwatch before, let us explain.

This annual festival of frenetic bird-counting all began in the late seventies when the RSPB asked its junior members to count birds in their gardens all on the same weekend for something to do. The idea proved so successful it became a regular fixture on the conservation calendar and has since grown to become the biggest survey of its kind in the world. Last year well over half a million people took part compared to just 30,000 kids when the survey started. In the last 30 years more than three million Big Garden Birdwatching hours have been clocked up, some 6 million or so birds have been spotted and perhaps more importantly vital information has been gathered from across the nation about which species in our gardens are faring well and which are having a harder time of things.

Sadly it seems that over the last few years the survey has revealed a drop in the total number of birds seen. In fact in 2008 numbers were at their lowest for some five years.

Species the survey tells us we should have particular cause for concern about include starlings and sparrows. Although this might seem hard to believe given they vie with each other for the number one spot, both locally and nationally on our charts (see below), their numbers have declined substantially. Were now getting a lot fewer of both these birds in our gardens.

When the survey began people were enjoying bigger groups of these social birds visiting their gardens. Back then people would regularly count as many as ten sparrows and 15 starlings in their gardens - these days were lucky to record more than three or four of each. The house sparrow has declined by 63 per cent since the survey began, and the starling has dropped by just short of 80 per cent.

The latest results for 2009, however, do show that the average numbers of many of the top ten birds have increased slightly since last year, including house sparrows. The only species on the top ten to show a drop last year were starlings. Thrushes still appear to be getting scarce, however, if you look back across the surveys findings. At the end of the 1970s they were actually quite common. Now theyre well down the rankings.

And after appearing in the top ten for the first time in 2008, goldfinches dropped out of the top ten rankings last year. Fortunately conservationists stress this isnt as depressing as it might sound because the species has actually been steadily increasing in numbers in recent years.

Continuing on a more positive note, a close look at the movers and shakers of the bird tables reveal that the tit family and pigeons appear to be doing very well and are now making regular appearances in the top 15 places on the annual garden bird charts.

The big surprise, when results for last year (2009) came in, was that long-tailed tits, for the first time in the surveys history, had made into the Big Garden Birdwatch national top ten (in County Durham theyre currently at number seven in the charts). The species increased by a staggering 88 per cent on the count for 2008 partly because its thought long-tailed tits have adapted from eating insects to feeding on seeds and peanuts from our garden feeders.

Old friends like robins and blackbirds too are still firm annual regulars appearing in 80 per cent of the gardens surveyed two years ago.

Information gathered like this really does help scientists and researchers plan and manage the future conservation strategies for different garden bird species and, as the saying goes every little helps - even a simple 60 minutes of our time.

So why not take the phone off the hook for an hour later this month and take some time out with the birds. You can help make a real difference for the future survival of our best loved garden companions, and, who knows, you may find yourself with an enthralling new hobby for 2010 at the end of your 60 minute session.

Pecking Order

Top 10 Garden Birds in County Durham

1. Starling
2. Sparrow
3. Blackbird
4. Blue tit
5. Chaffinch
6. Collared dove
7. Long-tailed tit
8. Great tit
9. Jackdaw
10. Robin

Top 10 Garden Birds in Northumberland

1. Sparrow
2. Starling
3. Blackbird
4. Chaffinch
5. Blue tit
6. Coal tit
7. Great tit
8. Collared dove
9. Dunnock
10. Robin

Top 10 Garden Birds Nationwide

1. Sparrow
2. Starling
3. Blackbird
4. Blue tit
5. Chaffinch
6. Wood pigeon
7. Collared dove
8. Great tit
9. Robin
10. Long-tailed tit

Lists based on the results of the 2009 RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

Pecking Order: How to take part

Set up a feeder or bird table near a window if you dont already have one so you can easily see whats going on in the garden. Put out a selection of varied foods including peanuts, suet cake, seeds, and so on to attract a range of different birds.

Pick a spot where you can observe the birds quietly and discreetly.

It can help to pick an hour early in the morning as birds are most active then.

During the hour you decide to set aside for the survey you will need to record the highest number of each species seen in your garden (not flying over) at any one time. Bear in mind some birds will return to the area several times, so try to make sure you dont record a returning bird.

You can download a counting sheet to help you record the birds visiting your garden from the RSPB website. It doesnt matter if you dont make a note of all the birds you see providing you record the ones you can clearly identify. The RSPBs counting sheet helpfully includes pictures of the commonest garden birds.

Finally if you need more information visit the RSPB website The bird charity also produces a practical book about the survey, RSPB Pocket Garden Birdwatch, available from its online shop for 5.99.

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