British garden bird numbers in decline

Image of House Martin supplied by the RSPB

Image of House Martin supplied by the RSPB

On 24th and 25th of January this year, the RSPB are asking everyone to join them in their Big Garden Bird Watch – a nationwide count of the different species in our gardens. After the RSPB have collated the information, they will then publish the results about which birds we are seeing and where. The idea is to get an overview of what population numbers are like in our gardens at this time of year. Statistics such as these will help to build a model of how healthy certain bird species’ populations are, where they are succeeding and where they need more help.

As always, it is hoped results will show healthy numbers of birds across Britain and Ireland, however a report from the British Trust for Ornithology indicates the results will say otherwise. The Birdtrends report, published in December 2014, surveys 120 species of birds in the UK and the results are extremely worrying. 28 species of birds appear to have suffered a decline of over 50% in the last 45 years. The report discovered this by focusing on habitat-specific trends in order to recognise which habitats were suffering the most losses. It seems that it is more common species which have suffered a decline, with rarer species enjoying a boost due to conservation efforts in their favour.  

Senior Research Fellow Dr Stephen Baillie, whom led the research, said “National declines in farmland birds are well-documented and these latest figures show that this decrease is continuing. The results of BTO surveys show that many familiar garden birds are also experiencing problems. House Sparrow numbers have dropped by almost 70% since the 1960s and the data suggest that sparrows occupying urban and suburban habitats are faring worst.”

It is thought that the reason House Sparrows have seen a decline is due to a lack of appropriate nesting sites which is also effecting House Martin’s (whom have seen a 69% reduction) and Starlings (50+%). These species of birds all like to nest in small holes in urban buildings, however thanks to us filling the holes in our walls, fixing our roofs and having loft insulation put in, we are preventing these birds from finding appropriate places to nest and causing their numbers to fall. On one hand, these adaptations we are making are positive; they save us money and save energy which helps the environment as reduced heat loss should lead to lower energy usage. For the birds however, they are severely detrimental, as without appropriate nesting site available breeding will decline and numbers will reduce.

But it is not just the changes in nesting availability which is affecting certain species. Sparrows have seen a decline in areas where there is a wide availability of suitable sites, meaning there is more to their population loss than we are currently aware of. One factor which is thought to be affecting numbers is that less people are feeding the birds in their garden, meaning food availability, especially in Winter, is falling and birds are finding it harder to survive.

So what can we do about it? Well, no one is suggesting that you don’t care for your home simply so the birds can nest there. You can put up a variety of well-spaced bird boxes to ensure different species have good nesting sites. Feeding the birds with the right food can also help, increasing feed amounts over the autumn and winter to ensure birds are building themselves up to face the colder months.


Wild bird feeding:

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the British bird world. Some species are flourishing and have seen population numbers rise by over 50%. It is the scavengers and those species with specific requirements like Wood Pigeons and Magpies, which seem to be doing really well. As habitats change, these species can adapt themselves more easily and are often found doing well in urban environments.

Whitethroat, Dunnock, Tree Sparrow, Bullfinch and Lesser Redpoll are all examples of species that were previously doing quite badly, but have seen an overall increase in more recent years. Whilst their numbers are still severely depleted, an increase is a positive sign. All of these birds are ‘priority species’ on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan and it is thought that the hard work which has gone into their preservation. If this is the case, it shows that we can potentially increase the numbers of all our birds with more hard work.

Alongside the RSPB’s Big Garden Watch, the BTO will be conducting further research on garden birds to try and get a better picture of the situation. This spring, they plan to survey the House Martin in an attempt to get a better idea of their population model; their numbers and distribution. They will also continue to conduct research, monitor numbers and carry out further surveys to ensure they get decent data on all bird populations to see where we have gone wrong and what we can do now to make it right.

Declining species:

Grey Partridge, Little Grebe, Lapwing, Redshank, Woodcock, Snipe, Turtle Dove, Cuckoo, Little Owl,  Willow Tit, Marsh Tit, Skylark, House Martin, Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Starling, Song Thrush, Mistle Thrush, Spotted Flycatcher, House Sparrow, Tree Sparrow, Yellow Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Linnet, Lesser Redpoll, Yellowhammer and Corn Bunting.

Increasing species:

Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Shellduck, Mallard, Sparrowhawk, Buzzard, Coot, Stock Dove, Woodpigeon, Collared Dove, Green Woodpecker, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Magpie, Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Great Tit, Blackcap and Nuthatch.

To view the survey reults and get more detailed information about specific bird species, head to the BTO website:

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