Each year, over a single week at the end of January, the nation's curtains twitch with eager anticipation as householders become participants in a garden-based wildlife spectacle. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, which has just undertaken its annual audit, is a terrific example of how you can capture interest and engage people as ‘Citizen Scientists’, tapping into goodwill, enthusiasm and a love of birds.
As a keen observer of my own garden birds, keeping records through the BTO Garden BirdWatch, I am aware of how the numbers of visiting birds can vary from one week to the next. The six inches of snow that were deposited on my garden in the middle of the weekend, has triggered a big increase in the numbers of Blackbirds and Greenfinches visiting, with my first Bramblings and Siskins of the year as well braving the confines of my small urban plot. Mild conditions over the weekend of Big Garden BirdWatch meant that things were fairly quiet on the feeders, with a few Goldfinches, two Great Tits and the resident Dunnocks, a very different picture. Things will change again as the winter progresses: Siskins should peak in mid-February, though probably in smaller numbers than last year because the crop of conifer seed has been better this year; the Goldfinches will peak in April and the Jackdaws in June. I’m aware of these seasonal patterns because I, and many others, keep a weekly record of the birds visiting my garden.
As the person organising the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch, I am often asked to explain how it dovetails in with Big Garden BirdWatch and what different things the two surveys might reveal. Both surveys have the same central aim: to work with volunteers to collect much-needed information on how and why birds use our gardens. There are some differences, however:
1) Size – The Big Garden Birdwatch is BIG with, for example, 600,000 people participating in 2011, something that provides a detailed snapshot of birds in gardens over a single weekend. BTO Garden BirdWatch is much smaller, with some 15,000 participants recording regularly throughout the whole year, and so does not achieve the same level of detail at a single point in time.
2) Time – Big Garden Birdwatch is one hour, one weekend, once a year. The weekly nature of the BTO Garden BirdWatch tells us more about how the use of gardens changes over time, revealing, for example, how garden use changes in relation to season, weather conditions, food availability and other factors. This is one of the reasons that I know that Siskins make greatest use of gardens in February.
3) Not just birds – Big Garden Birdwatch is about birds. The BTO Garden BirdWatch used to be just about birds too but it now covers birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, butterflies, bumblebees and dragonflies (oh, and one moth, two beetles and Hornet). This move to recording a wider range of species came in response to calls from BTO Garden BirdWatchers and a lack of wider understanding about how gardens are used by other species.
4) Cost – Big Garden Birdwatch is free, something that we would – in many ways – love to be able to say about the BTO Garden BirdWatch. Unfortunately, we have to charge an annual subscription of £15 to cover the running costs of the survey and the production of the quarterly magazine Bird Table sent out to participants, which feeds back results and articles.
5) Ownership – Once you have entered your records for Big Garden Birdwatch that’s your job done, until next year. With the BTO Garden BirdWatch, your records are always there for you to view through our online system (it’s a bit like having an online diary). If you spot a Blackcap in your garden and were wondering when else you saw one visit, simply select Blackcap from the list of what you have seen and it will show you all other records. My last Blackcap was in April last year, a passing visit.
6) Added value – BTO Garden BirdWatchers regularly contribute to other one-off surveys that dovetail in alongside their core weekly recording. For example, BTO Garden BirdWatchers have been a key component of the Garden Bird Health initiative, highlighting the emergence of a new disease in finches, and have revealed that urban birds get up later than their country cousins. In fact, BTO Garden BirdWatchers and their records are central to many different studies, local projects and national figures.
I see Big Garden Birdwatch as a springboard, providing budding garden birdwatchers with clear proof that their interest in garden birds can be used to collect valuable information on the wildlife using our gardens. If people enjoy noting down the birds seen in their garden on a single day, then how much more interesting (and addictive) would it become if they could record throughout the year, through a project like the BTO Garden BirdWatch.
I’d recommend doing RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, especially if you have never really considered yourself to be a ‘citizen scientist.’ Once you’ve done that, and found that you enjoy keeping a list of what you have seen, why not go a stage further and give the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch a try. After all, who knows what will happen in your garden next weekend?