Time to watch the birdie

ONE Sunday morning in January, I stood for an hour at my study window and watched the birds in my garden.Actually, I spent quite a lot of that hour wondering where the birds were.

ONE Sunday morning in January, I stood for an hour at my study window and watched the birds in my garden.

Actually, I spent quite a lot of that hour wondering where the birds were. Did they know it was the weekend for the Big Garden Birdwatch? Were they keeping away for that very reason?

Meanwhile, up and down the country, thousands of other people were having much the same thoughts.

Ultimately, in the course of that hour I clocked two blackbirds, three bluetits, three great tits, two chaffinches, a collared dove, three dunnocks, a robin and two wood pigeons.

The greatest delight was when five greenfinches all came and sat together in the treetop for a few minutes.

The biggest surprise was when a pheasant wandered in through the gate, took a little look around, then blundered out again through the hedge.

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I'd never seen a pheasant here before, and I haven't since. Perhaps he too knew I was watching out.

But where were the sparrows? Where were the redwings and fieldfares that had been in and out all the previous week? Why didn't the siskins, the jays or the green woodpecker put in an appearance? Why did the chirpy gang of long-tailed tits wait until the appointed hour was over before they turned up to swarm over the feeders?

Such questions are apparently the commonest among all those who take part in the Birdwatch. And that, I'm happy to say, is an awful lot of people. The RSPB has been running the annual garden survey since 1979, which has enabled it to build up a detailed picture of the changes in bird populations.

This year I was among more than 470,000 people ticking off the comings and goings. And the task of collecting and collating all their observations has now been completed.

In all, 8.1 million birds of 80 different species were spotted in 270,000 gardens and parks, adding up to an area equivalent to 7,000 football pitches.

But, while more people than ever are taking part, there are fewer birds to spot.

Some, like the wren and the greenfinch, are commoner now than they were 27 years ago.

But though the house sparrow is still the commonest garden bird, its numbers are massively down since the big watch began. An average of just 4.41 sparrows per garden was recorded this year, compared to an average of ten in 1979. That's a decline of 56 per cent.

The starling, which in some years has been the commonest garden bird, has seen numbers fall to just a quarter of those recorded in 1979. The reasons for such a decline may be many and various. It is not always easy to be sure exactly what they are. But it is certainly an alarming picture for the starling - and may be an indicator of things going wrong for us too.

As the RSPB says, wild birds are a fantastic indicator of the overall health of the environment. In some ways they are the best we have.

Global warming, pollution, changes in agriculture, building and industry and in the water supply - all these things affect plants, insects and other creatures. But the quickest and surest way to monitor their effects is to watch the birds.

Other things being equal, you would expect more birds to visit our gardens now than they did in the 1970s, because more people now put out food for them. So their decline around our homes may mean a starker decline in the woods and fields.

Where numbers appear to have risen, it may not always be simple good news. A 50pc rise in the number of songthrushes spotted this year may partly indicate a shortage of food elsewhere forcing them into the garden.There is also evidence that thrushes from Europe wintered here because of the harsh conditions on the continent.

In the case of migratory birds like the siskin (up an astonishing 483pc on last year) and the brambling (up 371pc), it is believed they were driven here by the hard winter in mainland Europe.

The most widespread garden bird - seen in nearly 95pc of gardens - was the blackbird, whose numbers were up by a quarter since 2005.

But though that looks encouraging, the overall trend since 1979 is still a 25pc drop. The songthrush, chaffinch and robin are all up on last year, but down in the longer term too.

There are, of course, regional variations. The tree sparrow's numbers are down a horrifying 95pc since the 1970s, but it hangs on in good numbers in north and east Yorkshire and in Rutland.

In Suffolk, the starling is still number one, while the pheasant, not seen at all in most parts of the country, comes in at number 14.

The pheasant, being deliberately reared for shooting, is only a semi-wild creature.

But what do you make of the ring-necked parakeet, which makes the top 15 in London?

Originally tropical, enough pet parakeets have escaped for them to have “gone wild” in the capital, surviving on nuts and berries in parks and gardens.




See tomorrow's monthly column from the RSPB for Suffolk's - and Stare readers' - top ten.


See www.eveningstar.co.uk/content/eveningstar/columns for other observations from Aidan.