Do starlings still top the bird charts?

THE last weekend in January is a date that should be in all gardeners' and nature lovers' diaries. The reason? It's your chance to take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

THE last weekend in January is a date that should be in all gardeners' and nature lovers' diaries.

The reason? It's your chance to take part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.

This is the nations biggest ever survey of garden birds, and has helped the RSPB to identify trends in garden bird populations since the first survey took place in 1979. More than 400,000 people take part each year. Could you help us to make that half a million this year?

All you need to do to take part is watch your garden birds for one hour on either January 27 or 28. If you don't have a garden, head down to your local park and see which birds you can spot there. Many children will be counting the birds in their school grounds in the week before or after as part of the related Big Schools' Birdwatch.

Simply record the highest number of each species that you see during your selected hour. Survey forms are available from selected outlets, including RSPB Minsmere nature reserve or call 0870 600 7108. Alternatively, they can be downloaded from the RSPB website by going to www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch .

Big Garden Birdwatch was the first survey to highlight the decline in song thrushes, which in 1979 were in the top ten garden birds. Sadly, these fabulous songsters have since declined massively, and few people are still lucky enough to see one in their gardens. In contrast, their close relative, the blackbird, continues to appear in almost every garden counted for the survey.

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By far the two commonest birds in 1979 were starling and house sparrow. How times have changed! Strangely, although the average number of each per garden is still higher than any other species, they are now absent from many gardens. This is because they do occur, it's usually in large flocks, making the average number per garden high.

Starlings and house sparrows, like song thrushes, have declined due to a reduction in suitable food and habitat, especially for nesting. House sparrows are especially susceptible to such changes as they rarely move far from home. Many cavities in walls and roofs once used by nesting birds have now been filled in, reducing the number of nest sites. The same fate has befallen starlings. All three species also suffer from a lack of insects to feed their chicks in the spring, so if you have them nearby why not feed mealworms to help them out.

It's far from all doom and gloom though. Some of our most colourful and popular garden birds rarely occurred in gardens in 1979. Goldfinches, for example, are a relatively new arrival in gardens. First attracted to black sunflower seeds, they love the de-husked sunflower hearts.

If you've got goldfinches visiting, you could treat them to something really special by buying a nyjer seed feeder - and the seed to put in it of course. Nyjer is a tiny, thistle-like seed, and the special feeders are perfect for goldfinches to feed from without being hassled by the larger greenfinches.

Great spotted woodpeckers are recent arrivals in gardens, too. Peanut feeders and fat balls are popular with these superb black and white birds. If you are using fatballs, please remove the fine mesh that surrounds some as birds can become entangled in the mesh. The great spot's larger cousins, green woodpeckers, regularly visit gardens too, but rarely use feeders. Instead, they are attracted to lawns and paths where they gobble up vast quantities of ants.

Will you find something unusual in your garden in 2007? There have been four waxwings in Westleton recently, so it's worth keeping an eye open for these gorgeous Scandinavian berry-guzzlers. There are few in the country this year though. The mild weather we have seen recently means that many winter visitors have stayed on the continent. This means that you may be less likely to see bramblings, redwings and fieldfares this year.

Any bird visiting the garden can be counted, so perhaps you'll see a pheasant, or if you've a pond maybe a moorhen or mallard. Even if very few birds are seen, please send in your results anyway as it helps to give us an accurate picture of the state of our garden birds.

Why not bring the family along to Minsmere on Sunday 21 January to take part in our Make a Bird Feeder day? Both children and parents alike can have a go at making feeders from pine cones and logs filled with bird cake. There will be other craft activities, and we'll provide everything you need to have fun.

The Make a Bird Feeder event runs from 10.30 am to 2.30 pm, and you should allow about an hour to complete the activities. It costs £3 per child, with accompanying adults free. To book you place, call us on 01728 648281. You can then use your newly made feeder to attract birds for the Big Garden Birdwatch.

at Minsmere unless stated, tel: 01728 648281

January 21, 10.30am - 2.30pm: Make a bird feeder at Minsmere

January 21, 9.30am - 11.30pm and February 11, 1.30pm - 3.30pm: Aren't Birds Brilliant at Mistley Walls - free event

January 25 and M29, February 9 and 17 at 10am: Discovering Minsmere

January 27 and February 16 at 10am: Birdwatching for beginners

February 1 at 7.30pm: Wildlife of South Africa - talk by David Healey to RSPB Woodbridge local group at Woodbridge Community Hall (contact 01728 723155 for details)

February 2 at 10am: World Wetlands Day at Minsmere

February 3 at 11 am: RSPB walk at Snape Maltings Farmers Market

February 4 at 9 am: Winter wildfowl at North Warren (meet near Scallop Sculpture in Aldeburgh)

February 8 at 7.30 pm: The Texas Trail - talk by David Hassell to RSPB Ipswich local group at Sidegate Lane Primary School, Ipswich (01473 718106)

February 12 at 7 am: What's About at Minsmere?

February 13 at 10 am: Family wildlife walk at Minsmere

February 14 at 10 am: Valentine's day family walk

For general enquiries call 01767 680551, or e-mail enquiries@rspb.org.uk .

Or call RSPB Minsmere on 01728 648281, e-mail minsmere@rspb.org.uk

Weblink: www.rspb.org.uk

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