Big Garden Birdwatch can help give nature a home all year round, says RSPB Scotland 

People taking part in this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 January) should watch how the birds use their garden as well as watching the birds themselves, says RSPB Scotland.

“Every bird species has its own preferences for how it seeks food, water and shelter. While you count the birds during your Birdwatch hour also pay attention to how they are using your garden.  This is a good opportunity to notice ways you can improve your outside space to help give nature a home,” says Keith Morton, Species Policy Officer for RSPB Scotland.

house sparrow

Last year nearly 40,000 people across Scotland spent an hour counting their garden birds during the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, with house sparrows topping the list. The survey, which is now in its 36th year, provides important information about the changes in numbers of birds using our gardens in winter, and helps alert conservationists to those species in decline like house sparrows, greenfinches and starlings.

Experts are interested to see how the mixed weather conditions, and overall milder winter temperatures affect the number of birds in gardens in different areas of the country. Will numbers be low because natural food sources in the countryside are abundant, or will birds appear in their droves to make the most of garden feeders?

And it’s not just Scotland that’s experienced warmer weather. Experts are also interested to see if the numbers of visitor birds from Scandinavia and Siberia may be reduced in this year’s survey. Sightings of waxwings, redwings, fieldfares and bramblings could be down due to plentiful food supplies in northern Europe and Asia.

RSPB scientists are keen that, whatever the weather, as many people as possible take part.

Keith continues: “You can use your Birdwatch hour to help make your garden more nature-friendly all year round. Watch how the birds approach the feeders you have put out for them using trees, shrubs and bushes as different birds seek shelter in different places. You can also start to plan ahead for the warmer months. Work out where to best place a nest box for the birds who visit your garden. Think about adding some nectar-rich plants that attract insects, a favourite food for many of our garden birds, to your outside space. Small changes such as these can make a big difference to giving nature a home in your garden.”

Last year, for the first time, the RSPB asked participants to log some of the other wildlife they see in their gardens to help build an overall picture of how important our gardens are for giving nature a home.

Participants don’t have to see and count these other species during the hour of the Big Garden Birdwatch survey. They just fill in the form to tell the RSPB how frequently they saw them in their gardens over the past year.

Grey squirrels were the most counted species in last year’s survey with 72 percent of people seeing them in their gardens at least once a month. Although across the UK only 3 percent of people reported seeing red squirrels in their gardens this rose to 17 percent in rural Scotland.

This year, slow worms and grass snakes have been added to the list, although the latter are not usually seen in Scotland. Other species that will be surveyed again include badgers, hedgehogs, deer and foxes.

“Not all of these species will be out and about during your Birdwatch hour. Some will be hibernating or are nocturnal, while others are only occasional seen in Scotland. That’s why we ask you to let us know if you ever see them in your garden so we can paint a picture of where they are in across the country and how often they appear,” says Keith.

Alternating the wildlife species surveyed each year will enable a system by which species are surveyed at least once every three years. This will provide sufficient data to determine whether distributions change over time.

Like last year, the RSPB will share the results with Amphibian & Reptile Conservation (ARC), People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and The Mammal Society to add to their species databases. Results will help all the organisations involved build their understanding about the threats facing garden wildlife.

greenfinch

Marina Pacheco, CEO of The Mammal Society said:  “The best thing people can do for mammals in the garden is having a pond or ready source of water at ground level and gaps in their fences so that animals like hedgehogs can get into their gardens. We are very worried about the proliferation of concrete baseboards for garden fences as it’s keeping our wildlife out of gardens and reducing connectivity.”

Dr John Wilkinson from Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (ARC), said: “Not many people realise how important gardens are for some reptiles and amphibians. If you can, having a compost bin will not only help recycle garden and kitchen waste but you might even get slow-worms setting up home in the warm, decomposing vegetable matter and if you’re very lucky grass snakes will find your heap and lay their leathery eggs in it! If reptiles do start using your heap, avoid turning the compost in summer and autumn when baby slow-worms and grass snakes are emerging.

Henry Johnson, Hedgehog Officer, People’s Trust for Endangered Species, said: “Once again this massive survey is showing us how amazing gardens are for wild things. Brits still have hedgehogs visiting their gardens, and this is something to cherish as they are in trouble. Hedgehogs cannot fly and need lots of gardens to thrive so make sure yours is linked to your neighbours with a small (13cm2) hole. Then every British street can be a Hedgehog Street.”

Keith Morton, Species Policy Officer, RSPB Scotland added: “By including these species and making Big Garden Birdwatch even bigger we can capture more information about the wide variety of wildlife that Scottish gardens support. Looking out for these other species will help us and our partners identify any changes in their distribution in the coming years. It’s really important that we have as many people take part as possible over this weekend. Over the years Birdwatch has helped us get a handle on the decline in populations of many of our much loved garden birds such as house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes. Whatever birds or wildlife you see and even if you never see some species your results will be really useful to RSPB Scotland.”

The RSPB hopes to use the data to build an overall picture of how important our gardens are for all types of wildlife and tailor its advice so people can help their wild visitors find a home, feed and breed successfully.

The Big Garden Birdwatch is part of the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces – whether it by planting pollen-rich plants to attract bees and butterflies, putting up a nestbox for a house sparrow, or creating a pond that will support a number of different species. To find out how you can give nature a home where you live visit rspb.org.uk/homes.

Schoolchildren across the country are also encouraged to get involved and discover the nature around their schools in the Big Schools’ Birdwatch. So far this year over 110,000 children have registered to take part in the survey where schools are asked to spend one hour recording the wildlife in their outdoor spaces and playgrounds. This year’s Big Schools’ Birdwatch began on 5 January and runs until 13 February so there is still plenty of time to register and take part: http://www.rspb.org.uk/discoverandenjoynature/discoverandlearn/schoolswatch/

You can register to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch and find out more by visiting at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

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