Mild weather boosts sightings of small birds in gardens

The RSPB's latest Big Garden Birdwatch survey has highlighted how warm winters make it easier for small birds to find food - and underlines the importance of bird feeders when the weather turns nasty.

Long-tailed tit in top 10 garden birds sighted. Image: Pixabay
Long-tailed tit in top 10 garden birds sighted. Image: Pixabay

More than 519,000 people took part in the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch this year, counting a total 8,262,662 birds. The world's largest garden wildlife survey has now run for 37 years, gathering copious amounts of data about the rise and fall of species in people's backyards.

This year the tiny long-tailed tit flew into the top 10 for the first time in seven years, after the average number seen visiting gardens across the UK increased by 44 per cent. The highly sociable species is likely to have benefited from the mild months leading up to January's Birdwatch, making an appearance in over a quarter of participants' gardens.

RSPB experts are also linking sightings of other small birds, such as coal tit and great tit, to the mild weather. Small insect-eating birds like long-tailed tits are less likely to survive the cold, as the food they rely on is hard to come by in frosts and snow.

The society is using the results to encourage people to continue feeding birds, particularly in colder weather.

Dr Daniel Hayhow, RSPB conservation scientist, said: "This year's survey was another brilliant year for the Big Garden Birdwatch. More than half-a-million people took part counting a bumper 8.2 million birds, proving us with valuable data which helps to build a better picture of how our garden birds are doing.

"The weather can have varied effects on different groups of birds in terms of behaviour and habitats used. The increase in long-tailed tit sightings, along with other smaller garden birds, just goes to show that in the absence of very cold weather these species can survive the winter months in much great numbers."

During periods of colder temperatures birds struggle to find food in the wider countryside so become more reliant on garden feeders. Long-tailed tits, and other smaller birds, have adapted to feeding on seeds and peanuts at bird tables or from hanging feeders - a boon for garden centres which have capitalised on previous cold winters by selling bird food supplies.

Since 2006 the average number of long-tailed tits seen in UK gardens has increased by 52 per cent, while great tit numbers have gone up by 13 per cent and coal tit by 9 per cent.

Hayhow added: "The increase in numbers of sightings of these smaller garden birds highlights the importance of a well stocked bird feeder for some species. Long-tailed tits only started using garden feeders in recent years, and now more people are spotting them in their gardens as this behaviour develops."

Despite this boost in numbers many other birds are struggling. Sightings of well known species such as starlings and song thrushes have experienced another drop this year. This decline continues a trend that has seen the number of both species visiting gardens decline by 81 and 89 per cent since the first birdwatch in 1979.

Ben Andrew, RSPB wildlife advisor, added: "A lot of our favourite garden birds are struggling and are in desperate need of our help. Gardens or outdoor spaces are an invaluable resource for many species – they can provide a safe habitat and enough food and water to survive – which are likely to have a significant effect on their populations."

The same trends have been spotted in the parallel event, Big Schools' Birdwatch, which continued to break records with more schools and children taking part than ever before. The UK-wide survey of birds in schools had over 90,000 school children spending an hour in nature counting birds. Blackbird remained the most common playground visitor for the eighth year in a row. The top three was rounded off by starling and woodpigeon.

Big Garden Birdwatch and Big Schools' Birdwatch are a part of the RSPB's Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the threats facing the UK's threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their gardens or outdoor space – whether it's putting up a nest box for birds, creating a pond for frogs or building a home for hedgehogs.

Birdwatch Top 10

1. House sparrow

2. Starling

3. Blue tit

4. Blackbird

5. Woodpigeon

6. Goldfinch

7. Chaffinch

8. Great tit

9. Robin

10. Long-tailed tit

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