RSPB Communication's Officer, Lucy Hodson, delves into the garden birds that are the top visitors to English gardens, based on the results of the world's largest wildlife survey - the Big Garden Birdwatch.
Each year in January, thousands of people just like you, give us an hour of their time to tell us about the wildlife visiting gardens and green spaces. The Big Garden Birdwatch has been running since 1979, and so over time this data has helped us paint a picture of the birds you’re most likely to see, and how their numbers might have changed.
Big Garden Birdwatch 2020 is almost upon us, so what can you expect to spot between 25 and 27 January? We take a look at last year’s results to bring you the top 10 feathered guests of your garden…
Photo by Ben Andrew, RSPB Images.
Whether you associate them with sorrow or joy, magpies are lively garden characters who make their presence known. These monochrome birds have increased significantly since the birdwatch started, and this year bumped into the top 10. Magpies have big brains and can match chimpanzees and orangutans in some intelligence tests. Their ability to thrive under increasing human pressures could be down to their brainpower and adaptability.
Identify a magpie: A striking black and white bird, with a long tail and beautiful iridescence in sunlight.
Photo by Andy Hay, RSPB Images
Chaffinches add a lovely splash of colour to a winter garden and can often be seen feeding on the ground below your feeders. In spring, their descending song is iconic, ending in a distinct, scratching raspberry.
A decline in chaffinches has been noted through the Big Garden Birdwatch, although this seems to have stabilised in recent years. It’s thought chaffinches are susceptible to trichomonosis; a disease which affects other finches too. You can help stop its spread by washing your feeders and bird baths regularly, using a light, wildlife-friendly disinfectant.
Identify a chaffinch: Male chaffinches have a grey cap, a bright salmon pink belly, and a greeny-yellow rump. Females are brown all over, with a white wing bar.
Photo by Ray Kennedy, RSPB Images
The eighth most-spotted bird in your gardens was the iconic robin! These brave little birds are fans of juicy worms and can come quite close if you’re gardening and disturbing the soil.
Robins are particularly sensitive to the cold, so making sure your feeders are stocked and bird baths are clear of ice will really help them during a cold snap.
Identify a robin: The iconic robin boasts a bright red-orange breast, brown back, and creamy white underbelly.
7. Great tit
Photo by Ray Kennedy, RSPB Images
Great tits are some of the Big Garden Birdwatch winners. Their adaptability means they’ve flourished in our gardens, even though they evolved as a woodland bird. They’ve increased substantially over the years of birdwatches and are now seen in nearly 60% of gardens.
Keep an ear out for their distinct two-syllable song, following the rhythm of ‘tea-cher, tea-cher, tea-cher’!
Identify a great tit: These hefty tits boast a black cap, white cheeks, an olive-green back and blue-grey wings. Their bright yellow belly is split down the middle by a black stripe. Photo by Ray Kennedy, RSPB Images.
Photo by John Bridges, RSPB Images.
Sightings of these sociable little birds have also increased since the Big Garden Birdwatch began, and are now come in at number six, having been spied in over a third of our gardens. They’re primarily seed feeders, using their long, pointed beak to extract seeds from plants such as teasels. It’s thought the number of gardens offering nyger seed on the feeder menu is partly responsible for their boosted numbers!
Identify a goldfinch: Also known as ‘jam-faces’, the bright red head of a goldfinch really stands out! They have bright yellow patches on their wings and a sharp, pointed beak.
Photo by Chris Gomersall, RSPB Images.
The repetitive ‘woohooo-hoo, woo-hoo’ song of the woodpigeon will be familiar to many of us. Often too heavy for a bird feeder (though this doesn’t stop them trying), they’re more likely to take advantage of bird tables and seed spilled on the floor.
Their numbers have increased massively in recent decades, thought to be related to changes in farming practices. They were seen in 79% of gardens in England in 2019!
Identify a woodpigeon: A hefty grey-blue bird, with a pink chest and distinct white neck patch.
Photos by Ben Andrew, RSPB Images.
Seen in a whopping 87% of gardens in 2019, the blackbird is an iconic visitor. These birds are highly territorial, and you might see your resident male bowing and chasing any rivals who dare try and encroach on his patch.
They’re fond of earthworms, so look out for them pulling them from the lawn or leaflitter. Blackbirds often start up with their melodic, whistle-like song during January, often from a tree or rooftop.
Identify a blackbird: Males are a dark black, with a sunshine-yellow beak and eye ring. Females and young blackbirds forego their name, both being brown all over.
3. Blue tit
Photo by Louise Greenhorn, RSPB Images.
Blue tits are adaptable little birds who are a familiar sight of garden feeders. Their numbers have remained relatively steady over the years, and they were seen in three-quarters of gardens in 2019’s Birdwatch.
They’re omnivorous, so will eat insects during spring and summer months, and enjoy seeds and feeders during the winter. You’ll often see them bullied off a bird feeder by their bossier cousin, the great tit.
Identify a blue tit: Recognised quite easily by their bright blue cap, blue tits are tiny birds with a yellow belly, and distinct black eye stripe.
Although still common in gardens, sightings of starlings have declined by 80% since the Big Garden Birdwatch started. During winter, you can see them feeding in groups; it can be thoroughly entertaining to watch a gang squabbling over suet – which they really enjoy.
Starlings are happy to nest quite close to each other, so putting out several nest boxes is a good way to encourage them into your garden. Keep an ear out for their amazing repertoire of calls; as well as mimicking other birds, they’ve been known to impersonate car alarms, phones and engines!
Identify a starling: Appearing black at a distance, starlings’ plumage is actually iridescent; reflecting the sun in a mix of greens and purples. Adults have white arrow-shaped specks, especially in winter.
1. House sparrow
Photos by Ray Kennedy, RSPB Images.
And the top birdy spot goes to the house sparrow! It’s believed they learned to live alongside humans around 10,000 years ago, so it’s no surprise this gregarious little chap is the bird most commonly seen in our gardens.
Despite their success in adapting to live alongside humans, they’ve still suffered, having declined by over 50% since the Big Garden Birdwatch started. Planting shrubs like hawthorn and honeysuckle may help the sparrows in your garden by providing shelter and encouraging insects.
Identify a house sparrow: Males don a grey cap (compared to the much rarer tree sparrow’s chestnut cap), a brown head and back, a black bib and a greyish underbelly. Females in comparison are a buff brown all over.
Now you know what you’re looking for, you can sign up for this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch! Spend an hour watching the birds in your garden and let us know what you see: RSPB.org.uk/birdwatch
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