Where have all our birds gone?

Hello birdwatchers

You may have noticed that the RSPB has announced the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch survey that took place in January this year. Over half a million households took part in the survey and over 8.5 million birds were counted in total.

The blackbird was the most widely spotted bird in our gardens this year and both robins and wrens were seen more often than last year.

On the down side, the reported numbers of song thrush, house sparrow, greenfinch and starling were worryingly low with the number of starlings reported in the survey reducing by 80% since the first survey in 1979.

So what could be the cause of this observed drop in numbers of birds visiting our gardens? 

Well, there are a few factors to consider

1. The main reason that we have seen fewer birds in our gardens this winter is that we’ve had a long stretch of relatively settled weather in the UK.  The long spring and summer months of 2014 will have produced a good natural seed crop providing more food than usual for our birds. As the winter has been relatively mild and dry, much of this food will have remained on the ground unspoilt over the last few months. Our birds will have taken advantage of this abundant food source and will not have had to rely on our garden seed so much.  Many people have been telling me that they have had fewer birds visiting their feeders throughout this winter.

2. The weather has not only been milder here but it has also been milder on the continent. Our resident population of birds is usually supplemented by thousands of individuals that make their way across the North Sea to feed in the UK each winter. If the weather is mild on the continent then many of these birds will be able to find enough food over the winter and won’t make the journey to the UK. This may account for people observing fewer chaffinch, brambling, starling and thrush species during the survey. Certainly, we’ve barely had any waxwings travelling to Britain this winter which is one indicator of the abundance of winter food on the continent.

3. Still, the trend is that most birds are declining year on year.  Why is this? Well I’m going to depress you now but we have to face facts. Most of our bird species are declining because of us. The human population is increasing exponentially and the UK is a tiny island. We’ve all heard our parents and grandparents say to us “I remember when all this used to be fields”. Most of us will probably have memories of our own about places we used to play as children that are now covered with houses, business parks or roads. We’re losing vast amounts of habitat each year to concrete and most of our open countryside is intensively farmed. Intensive farming involves the removal of miles of hedgerow; efficient grain collection; the planting of winter crops; and frequent spraying with herbicides and insecticides over the growing season. We class rough grassland and scrub in cities and suburbs as ‘waste ground’ and are happy to see it go. This ground makes excellent habitat for seed eating birds; those that search for insects hibernating over the winter and also for birds that need to eat small mammals to survive like kestrels and owls. We put our politicians is under pressure to satisfy the need for housing resulting in pledges to build in the region of 100,000 new houses each year. How many years will that take before most of the UK is under concrete? I can’t bear to work it out.

So, next time you’re asking yourself where all the birds have gone, take a look at the ‘development’ going on around you and reflect. Our birds are the price of our ‘progress’. Enjoy them while you can.

Song thrush

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