We often tend to think of threatened birds as living out in the wider countryside, like curlew, hen harrier and lapwing. Yet many of the birds which can be seen in our parks and gardens are struggling to survive and thrive too. You may have even counted some of these species on your recent Big Garden Birdwatch! 

The latest Birds of Conservation Concern 5 report, which was released in December 2021, shows that 1 in 3 species are now on the UK Red List of Conservation Concern.

Depending on where in England you live, taking a few simple steps ahead of the approaching spring could make a real difference to the fortunes of some our red-listed birds. We’ve pulled together a practical guide to how you can use your gardens and local green spaces to help some of our more threatened species where you live.

If you live near farmland edges

Farmland makes up around 75 per cent of the UK, and so farming has a huge influence on nature. Over recent decades there have been significant changes in the way that our countryside is farmed, with more specialised farming systems and larger machinery. This intensification of farming practices driven by post-war farming policy has encouraged food production above all else. The result of these changes have been rapid declines in some farmland wildlife – by 2000 farmland bird populations were just half what they were in 1970. 

Many farmers are leading the way to address this, showing it's possible to farm in a way which meets our food needs, gives nature a home and supports a diverse and thriving environment.

Some farmland birds are still struggling to recover and still need all the help we can give them! If you live near farmland edges, you may find a few of these farmland birds visit your gardens too!

Tree sparrow

Tree sparrows are closely related to house sparrows, but these farmland specialists rely on seeds throughout the year, and insects in summer to feed to their chicks. They can be identified by their white cheeks with black ‘ear’ spot, and chestnut caps (house sparrows don’t feature the ear spot and have grey (male) or brown (female) caps) If you have tree sparrows nearby, they can be encouraged to use suitable next boxes. They will use feeders and visit insect-rich gardens when food is scarce in the wider countryside. Don’t forget feeders should be cleaned at least once a week to stop the spread of any diseases. You can read more about tree sparrow population trends here 

Yellowhammer

These bright buntings are well known for their ‘little bit of bread and no cheese’ song and can be found around many farmland areas. They love a messy hedgerow, scrubby nesting habitat and while they don’t often feed on hanging feeders, they will sometimes forage for spilt seed on the ground or on large bird tables. If you live in a farmland area, letting the end or edge of your garden go wild could help provide food and shelter for these brilliant, bright birds.  You can read more about yellowhammer population trends here 

Linnet

Linnets are most often found in farmland, heathland and coastal flocks. They are another seed eating bird that like wilder farmland field margins and hedgerows. Providing scrubby habitat and seed-bearing wildflowers, even the humble dandelion, in your garden may help them to find shelter and food. They have also been seen feeding on spilt feed under feeders, preferring to forage on the ground. You can read more about their declines here You can read more about linnet population trends here

Fieldfare

A shy winter visitor, fieldfares are declining because of issues on the breeding grounds, but helping them feel full and nourished before they migrate could help. Leaving windfall fruit, only cutting back bushes once berries have gone and providing clean water daily throughout winter may help this wintering species thrive, particularly during cold snaps when they may venture into gardens in search of food. You can read more about fieldfare here

Yellow wagtail

Yellow wagtails are migratory and nest in open farmland fields – both arable and grassland. While they don’t visit gardens often, they occasionally stop at larger garden ponds near farmland areas, to freshen up and feast on flying insects. If you have the space, putting in large, ponds with a gently sloping shallow edge can help a variety of species, including yellow wagtails, swallows, house martins and warblers, to find food and drinking water on migration! You can read more about yellow wagtail population trends here

The Red Listed birds below really need our help but some have limited ranges (meaning they won’t be found all across England) Most are unlikely to nest or be seen in many gardens, but they might be occasional visitors to larger gardens, or benefit from the efforts of local conservation groups in community green spaces. If you’re willing to go the extra mile for these birds, you might be rewarded with the sound of some iconic birdsong in your neighbourhood this spring!

Cuckoo

Cuckoos declines are not yet fully understood, but there is good evidence that a lack of food for adult cuckoos on their breeding grounds; hairy caterpillars, and other larger, slow-moving insects, has had a big impact in the more intensively managed lowlands. Protecting and encouraging areas of rough grassland and native broadleaved scrub, with plants like nettles, docks, willow, blackthorn and hawthorn, will help the moths, grasshoppers and other insects that adult cuckoos depend on.    

You can read more about cuckoo population trends here

Nightingale

Nightingale populations have fallen by more than half since 1995 but they can still be found in Southern England during the spring and summer months. They breed in thick scrub, wide dense hedges, and coppiced woodland, where loss of dense low vegetation from grazing by expanding deer populations is known to be a problem, as this is where nightingales hide their nests. Where dense scrubby vegetation is allowed to develop, nightingales respond well, for example at the Knepp Wildland project in Sussex. Scrubby areas on brownfield sites can provide similar opportunities - one of the best examples is an abandoned military base called Lodge Hill, on the edge of Kent, where nature reclaimed the land and provided the ideal nesting conditions. One was even recorded holding a territory at Reading services in 2019! If you have nightingale populations nesting near you, recording them and reporting them through Birdtrack can help us build up a picture of where these special songbirds are still thriving. You can read more about nightingale population trends here

Spotted flycatcher

Once a common bird in open forests, woodland, parks and wooded gardens across the UK, we have lost just over half of our spotted flycatchers since 1995, with declines particularly noted in the south and east where they are now scarce. They nest on ledges or in open cavities, or in climbing plants in trees or on buildings. Their habit of nesting on ledges inside barns or out-buildings earned them the local name ‘Beam Bird’. They can be unobtrusive but are not shy and will nest near humans. They prefer areas with both mature trees and open space in which to fly-catch. Wooded rural gardens or wooded churchyards can often hold a breeding pair. They will use suitable open-fronted nestboxes - these need to have a shallow front lip so that a sitting bird can still see out (you can adapt some robin nest boxes by adding a second floor panel inside to raise the nest closer to the edge) and be aware of any approaching danger. However, concealing the box from above and below, for example by placing it within a climbing plant, appears to be favoured. As their name suggests, anything you can do to increase the numbers of flying insects in the area – ponds, wildflowers, native shrubs, bushes and trees, etc – can only be good for spotted flycatchers.

You can read more about spotted flycatcher population trends here

Turtle dove

Turtle doves are a migratory farmland bird that’s becoming increasingly seen at garden feeding stations during spring and summer months as food has become scarcer in the countryside. They feed on seeds of arable and grassland plants, but changes to the way we farm have removed many of the ‘weeds’ and wildflowers they used to depend upon, particularly at the time they most need them, the start of the breeding season, when they have just returned from Africa. Turtle doves have short, stubby legs, so need low patchy vegetation and shallow sided pools to help them access food and water. If you live in Southern or Eastern England, you can find some advice on gardening for turtle doves here. If you do spot one this spring, be sure to log your sighting on Birdtrack too! You can read more about turtle dove population trends here

Twite

Twite are an upland bird, with breeding populations now restricted to rural parts of Northern England, Scotland and Wales. In winter, they can also be spotted searching for seed on the coast. They look very similar to a linnet but feature a bright yellow beak. They are highly unlikely to be spotted many gardens but may perch on fences and hedgerows in upland and coastal areas, before dropping down to bare earth to feed. In recent years, licensed bird ringers have fitted tiny colour rings to the legs of many twite in the South Pennines. Each ring has a unique combination of colours, allowing the movements of individual birds to be accurately tracked. Details of sightings, and photos that show these colour rings, can be emailed to katrina.aspin@rspb.org.uk. More detailed information on the species and a guide to identifying twite can be found on the Twite Recovery Project webpage. You can read more about twite here

If you don’t have a garden or community green space that can be used to help wildlife, then please consider supporting our vital conservation work through a donation to our Red List Appeal. Every donation helps us to do more for the threatened wildlife that depends on us to give nature a home.   

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