1979 saw the start of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ (RSPB) “Big Garden Birdwatch”, during which people are asked to devote one hour observing birds in their gardens during the last weekend January, record all species seen and report the maximum number of each seen at one time (to avoid counting the same individuals twice). In that first year, 34,000 people participated, well above expectations. Last year, approaching half a million people took part!
Since 1979, the popularity of the annual event, and its ramifications in promoting interest in birds, has been accompanied by a huge increase in bird feeding in gardens, supported by the expanding industries involving design and manufacture of bird feeders and of producing an increasing variety of foodstuffs specifically for encouraging birds into gardens. This has had both positive and negative effects on some of the regular garden visitors. For example, the advent of niger seed in bulk and associated feeders for dispensing its tiny seeds appears to have been responsible for an increase in the propensity for Goldfinches to utilise gardens, and garden feeders might also have been responsible for an increase in the number of Blackcaps that spend the winter in Britain. On the downside, some species, especially Greenfinches, contracted a parasitic disease, Trichomonosis, at bird feeding stations that led to a rapid decline in Britain’s Greenfinch population. Nonetheless, there seems little doubt that the widespread feeding of birds in gardens has buffered several species against winter food shortages in the wider countryside and has encouraged more and more people to take an interest in their gardens as mini-reserves.
This year, I undertook my hour’s monitoring in my Surrey garden during the morning of 27 January. During that hour I recorded 61 individuals of 21 species – the garden was buzzing with birds to an extent that I had not seen before during Big Garden Birdwatches. While it is always nice to see Great-spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Marsh Tits in my garden, the 2018 counts were dominated by finches. Following the trichomoniasis outbreak, Greenfinches disappeared from my garden entirely and Chaffinches became occasional visitors. In 2018, however, my maximum counts of these two species were 13 and 5 respectively, and they were joined by 5 Bullfinches (a bird whose population has declined to the extent that is in on the UK’s Red List of birds of conservation concern) and 2 Goldfinches (present without the encouragement of niger seed). But the astounding event during my birdwatch was the appearance of two magnificent Hawfinches, never seen before in my garden or even within 30 km of it. The 2017-2018 winter has seen an influx of these birds into the UK, believed to have been caused by a shortage of their favoured foods (fruits, seeds and nuts) in central Europe, while these foods have remained abundant further west. The two birds that appeared in the garden did not make use of the feeders, spending most of their time feeding on the ground beneath or on seed that I had scattered. Despite their striking plumage and massive bills, when they flew up into trees they were remarkably inconspicuous, which is why birdwatchers so rarely come across them.
Unfortunately, Hawfinches are not on the list of birds that the RSPB records during the Bird Garden Birdwatch because they are so rarely seen in gardens. Hopefully, people who have seen them will, like me, add a note to their reports commenting on their presence, enabling us to get an impression of how widespread the influx has been this winter. More detailed information will, however, be available from the British Trust of Ornithology’s “BirdTrack” database.
On a sadder note, a bird that I studied for much of my life, the Common Starling, remains stubbornly absent from my garden and its surroundings. They have now been absent for many years, reflecting the massive decline in their numbers within the UK, especially in the south and east, and in north-west Europe.