Big Garden Birdwatch

My interest in wildlife goes back as far as I can remember and the credit for this goes to my father who would often take me, my brother, my sister and our dogs on walks in the woods and along the beach. In particular, my dad would point out birds and pass on the knowledge he´s gained through books and observation. At 71 his love of birds is still strong and he´ll often spend his mornings watching his avian visitors or putting his previous trade as a joiner to use by constructing bird tables and nest boxes to improve his little patch for our struggling wildlife. Keeping his birds safe includes warding off any cats that try to enter the garden (much to the bewilderment, and often amusement, of my mother).

My father may not be an expert, but he knows his garden birds much better than I do so I thought it would be a great idea to put his observations to good use and give something back to him so I signed him up to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and booked a train home to Cumbria to undertake the survey with him.

Survey history

The Big Garden Birdwatch is a citizen science survey hosted by the RSPB in winter each year. It was first run in 1979 as a one-off winter activity designed for junior RSPB members. However, the RSPB underestimated how popular the survey would be and over 34,000 forms were returned (partly thanks to coverage on Blue Peter). The survey was repeated each year and adults were invited to participate from 2001.

Thirty six years later over half a million people now regularly take part in the survey. This has built a useful dataset for looking at changes in bird populations over time. This has allowed the RSPB to determine that we´ve lost more than half of our house sparrows and three quarters of our starlings. Blue tits have fared better, seeing a 20% rise over the years and our woodpigeon population has increased by 800%!

1 - RSPB PackSurvey method

The survey really is quite easy. You simply watch your garden (or a local green space if you don´t have a garden) for one hour and record the highest number of each bird species visiting your garden at one time. Recording just one number for each species prevents the results being skewed by repeat visitors and you only count birds that actually land in your garden. Following the one hour survey, you can submit your results online or via paper forms. Everything you need is sent out by the RSPB or can be downloaded in advance once you have signed up at the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch webpage.

The RSPB encourage their participants to provide food for our winter birds, so the survey also acts as a reminder to feed our winter garden birds. Some tips include providing fat cakes, coconut shells or seeds. You can make your own fat cakes as demonstrated by Nick Baker in the video below.

Our Big Garden Birdwatch

2 - GardenBefore starting we defined our survey area as the back garden. The count would take place out of the back bedroom window (opposed to downstairs) as this provided a less obstructed view of some of the garden. We determined that we would include the fences and walls, as well as any of the neighbour’s overhanging tree branches. We put out bread, seed and fat balls for the birds and filled up the bird bath with water.

3 - ParticipantsOn Sunday 31st January 2016 we started our survey at 10am. Within minutes two blackbirds landed on the fence, before flying to the lawn. A robin was quick to follow. The odd jackdaw would snatch and grab a piece of bread from the bird table and after several individuals coming in and out one at a time, six jackdaws entered the garden at once. The next new species was a lone dunnock foraging on the ground beneath the bird table. Just before the halfway point a pair of tree sparrows entered the garden to check out nest boxes. Three blackbirds chased each other around the garden floor, increasing the total for that species and a pair of great tits were added to the list. Two blue tits then did the rounds checking out nest boxes left, right and centre. A starling flew to the bird table and the species list increased to eight with 15 minutes remaining. Only one new species entered in the final 15 minutes: the song thrush. However, during this final period three great tits and two starlings entered the garden at the same time, increasing the counts for these species.

4 - Results

We entered the following results on to the form:

Blackbird (3)
Blue Tit (2)
Dunnock (1)
Great Tit (3)
Robin (1)
Jackdaw (6)
Tree Sparrow (2)
Robin (1)
Song Thrush (1)
Starling (2)
Tree Sparrow (2)

In addition the form asks you to record any additional wildlife (such as mammals and reptiles) that you have seen in your garden over the past year and give a measure of how frequently they visit (e.g. daily, weekly, monthly etc.). We had nothing extra to report so we placed the form in the return envelope (my parents do not have a computer or internet connection) and sent it back to the RSPB.


The survey was really simple and good fun. My father enjoyed it and was pleased to be putting his observations to good use. In my eyes, the best outcome from the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch was his realisation that you don’t need to be a scientist to make a contribution to science. It was a fantastic introduction to biological recording and I will definitely be returning to Cumbria next January to undertake the survey again!

5 - BTO PackFollowing the survey I presented my dad with a belated birthday present: membership to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden Birdwatch. This involves following a similar method to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch and submitting data on a weekly basis. This creates a high quality dataset on bird population trends across the years and seasons and makes a fantastic gift for anyone with a garden that is interested in birds. The gift pack includes a subscription to Bird Table magazine, a free book on birds and other assorted bits and bobs, along with instructions for the survey method and the survey forms (though an online option for data submission is also available). The gift membership is only £19.95 and details can be found at

31 January 2016

Published by KeironDerekBrown

A blog about biological recording in the UK from the scheme organiser for the National Earthworm Recording Scheme.

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