Feature: Big Garden Birdwatch turns 40

RSPB bird care product. Medium Premium seed feeder and feeder mix extra Greenfinch Carduelis chloris
RSPB bird care product. Medium Premium seed feeder and feeder mix extra Greenfinch Carduelis chloris

Charlie Bullough looks at the world’s largest garden wildlife survey and some of its winners and losers.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch will clock up a 40-year milestone in 2019.

In gardens, we advise people not to use slug pellets – and to try to provide dense, thorny bushes for cover’ RSPB spokesman

The nature study, where we spend an hour counting the birds in our garden each winter, has ticked more than 130 million birds since 1979.

Close to half-a-million people join in every year and the next count will take place on January 26, 27 and 28.

Mike Clarke, RSPB chief executive, said: “Everyone has a role to play in saving nature and protecting our wildlife. Big Garden Birdwatch participants have made a significant contribution to monitoring garden bird numbers over the past four decades. Those taking part work together as part of a community with thousands of other Big Garden Birdwatchers to help the RSPB’s work to protect birds, other wildlife and the places they live.

“Reaching 40 years is a huge achievement and shows just how passionate people across the UK are about their wildlife. The survey started as a winter activity for our youth members. It’s now the largest garden wildlife survey in the world and appeals to both children and adults because it’s an enjoyable, easy, inclusive activity that anyone can do and a great opportunity to connect with nature.”

The nature survey has helped reveal the winners and losers over the last 40 years.

Species like the song thrush are down by minus 75 per cent since the survey began. The study was the first to alert the RSPB to the decline in song thrush numbers. It was a firm fixture in the top 10 in 1979. But by 2009, its numbers were less than half those recorded in 1979. It’s now ranked 20th.

The starling was the number one bird in 1979 and maintained its high flying status for the next 20 years. But the total number of starlings seen during the counts has plummeted. In 1979 on average 15 starlings were seen but that was down to just over three by 2018. The bird is still the second most popular but its long range decline is much sharper with a minus 80 per cent drop.

The house sparrow has also seen a 57 per cent decline over 40 years, but data from the last ten years suggests a 17 percent increase.

Birds fully on the up include woodpigeons and collared doves. These have risen by 950 and 307 percent, respectively, since 1979.

An RSPB spokesman said: “Causes of song thrush decline are unclear, particularly in urban areas. In the countryside, their disappearance is linked to changes in land use, particularly where land has been drained and dried out, meaning there’s less food for these birds.

Fortunately their population seems to be stabilising after big declines from the 1970s to the 1980s. We think we know enough about their needs to be able to tackle the declines. For example, in gardens, we advise people not to use slug pellets – and to try to provide dense, thorny bushes for cover. On farmland we want to see improvements in the way farmers are rewarded for providing homes for wildlife, and by providing the right habitat for song thrushes they can make a huge difference.” The spokesman added: “In addition to things people can do is things people can stop doing - don’t use pesticides. Increasingly more and more local authorities are going pesticide free and a lot of them are extending that to the inhabitants of the areas.

“These actions will also benefit song thrush and a raft of the commoner Big Garden Birdwatch birds such as robin, dunnock and blackbird, as well as bats, hedgehogs, butterflies, moths, bumblebees, solitary bees and other pollinators.”

To mark the scheme’s 40th anniversary the RSPB is asking participants ‘How will you #BigGardenBirdWatch?’ to share their stories of how they take part.

The spokesman added: “So far, we’ve reached over a million people through our social media channels since we launched the campaign on January 1. Our supporters are constantly talking to us, there’s a real excitement around the 40th anniversary and people are wanting to make sure their gardens are ready for the Birdwatch weekend. We’ve had requests for 100,000 Big Garden Birdwatch packs.”


This year’s event takes place on January 26, 27 and 28. The public is asked to spend just one hour watching and recording the birds in their garden or local green space, then send their results to the RSPB.

Only count the birds that land, not those flying over. The RSPB wants to know the highest number of each bird species you see at any one time – not the total you see in the hour.

The RSPB is again asking participants to log some of the other wildlife they have seen throughout the year. This year, people are being asked to look out for badgers, foxes, grey and red squirrels, muntjac deer, roe deer, frog and toad. For your free 40th anniversary Big Garden Birdwatch pack, which includes a bird identification chart, text BIRD to 70030 or visit Are you ready to Big Garden Birdwatch? . The RSPB Big Schools’ Birdwatch, a parallel event, is taking place during the first half of spring term (January 2 to February 22). See Big Schools Birdwatch for more.