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#Gardens & birds, a beautiful match
Gardening & Agriculture Gardening & Agriculture General

Big win for small birds as feeders help finch and tit species to thrive

The mild winter was followed by a good breeding season, boosting garden sightings of finches and tits Finches and tits have enjoyed a golden year, according to the results of this year Big Garden Birdwatch. These small bird species suffer particularly badly in cold weather but in the past year benefited from a mild start to the winter that followed a good breeding season.
 European goldfinches on a bird feeder.
European goldfinches on a bird feeder. Photograph: Ian West/Alamy

Blackbird sightings in gardens were down – the result of plentiful food elsewhere – but a dearth of robins followed a poor nesting season.

The 39th annual Big Garden Birdwatch (UK) took place over the last weekend in January and more than 420,000 people took part, reporting a total of nearly 7 million birds. The event took place before the freezing weather dubbed the Beast from East arrived and the storm impact will not be known until later in the year after breeding number surveys are completed. However, the extreme cold is likely to have caused deaths in some populations, at least locally. The icy weather did bring some birds into the UK, with redwings and fieldfares arriving in large numbers, seeking to escape the even harsher weather to the east.

The biggest increase in birdwatch sightings compared to the previous year were for the brightly colored goldfinch (+11%), long-tailed tit (+16%) and coal tit (+15%). In May and June 2017, when the birds breed, the weather was warm, meaning more birds fledged. The autumn and winter were then mild, meaning more survived. Blue tits and chaffinches were also seen more often. In a really cold winter, many would die because they are tiny, said Daniel Hayhow, an RSPB conservation scientist. To have hundreds of thousands of people spend an hour watching the wildlife in their garden isnt only great to see, but it also helps us build up a picture of how our garden birds are doing, which is really helpful.
Sightings of long-tailed tits were up 16% on last year.
Sightings of long-tailed tits were up 16% on last year. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Sightings of long-tailed tits were up 16% on last year. The long-term trend seen in the data from the birdwatch, which began in 1979, shows chaffinches have declined by 55% but all the tits have increased. The general feeling is that tits are able to adapt better and take advantage of the resources people provide in their gardens, said Hayhow. As birds that form flocks, they can learn more easily from their peers, he said. The sweet song of goldfinch success Blackbirds and robins were the birds seen in the highest proportion of gardens, but the number of sightings fell by 18% and 12% respectively this year. Blackbirds like to eat worms, so in a mild winter, when the ground rarely freezes, they can find food widely and visit gardens less frequently. But the drop in robin sightings stems from a poor breeding season in 2017. The reason is unclear but may, paradoxically, be the result of too many robins competing with each other for food to raise their chicks. Sparrows were the most commonly spotted birds, with an average of over four per gardens. More than 1 million were counted, close to last year’s figure. Sparrow sightings have fallen by 57% in the four decades of the birdwatch, though the decline has levelled off in the last decade. Starlings were the second most common sighting this year, but have fallen by 80% since 1979, when the spectacular murmurations their flocks form were a far more common sight. “Many farmland birds have suffered from changes to farming practices, said Hayhow.
Starling in a tree
Starling sightings have fallen by 80% since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Starling sightings have fallen by 80% since the Big Garden Birdwatch began in 1979. One species that has inadvertently benefited from agricultural changes is the woodpigeon, which has the ability to breed all year when food is available. Sightings have shot up tenfold since 1979 as the planting of winter wheat became more common, providing shoots which the birds enjoy. Hayhow said the birdwatch results for the tits shows garden bird feeders can play an important role in supporting the UK’s birdlife: “What we do in our gardens is important and can influence the future of these species on our doorstep. People can do something really useful.
A magpie feeding from a coconut bird feeder in a garden
A magpie feeding from a coconut bird feeder in a Surrey garden. Photograph: Graham Prentice/Alamy Stock Photo

By: TheGuardian, Damian Carrungton