Twenty years of 'citizen science' in British gardens

Blackbird has remained one of the commonest birds in British gardens over the last 20 years. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
Blackbird has remained one of the commonest birds in British gardens over the last 20 years. Photo: Steve Young (www.birdsonfilm.com).
The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Garden BirdWatch survey is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with 13,000 households now taking part.

The charity says that it is all thanks to the dedication of its participants, whose hard work has allowed scientists to examine how, when and why birds and other wildlife use British gardens. There have been some ground-breaking findings, but the BTO says that none of it could have been achieved without the support of ‘citizen scientists’.

Gardens are often the place where people first encounter and learn to enjoy wildlife, and they are also an important habitat in their own right, supporting a wide range of species. However, back in 1995 when the BTO Garden BirdWatch started, gardens were less appreciated and funding was hard to come by. It is thanks to the generosity of the BTO Garden BirdWatch supporters who fund the survey that it is still going strong 20 years later.

The BTO Garden BirdWatch is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year, providing important information on how birds use gardens and how this use changes over time. Currently some 13,000 people take part in the project, which is funded by participants’ own contributions and is the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world.

With an average of 29 bird species reported per garden, our participants have contributed an astonishing 7.3 million hours of their time over the last 20 years, submitting just under 100 million observations. This wealth of information has also allowed BTO researchers to produce a scientific publication every year, including several investigating the decline of the UK’s House Sparrow population – a decline which was first discovered through the BTO’s garden-based data. The same contributions from volunteers revealed the impact of trichomonosis on the Greenfinch population, which has declined by 30 per cent since 2005 owing to this disease.

Since 1995, 481 different species (including birds, mammals, butterflies, bumblebees, reptiles and amphibians) have been recorded, with an average of 34.9 species reported per garden, while 30,271 gardens have submitted at least one week of data. One garden in Monmouthshire has reported data from 1,039 out of a possible 1,042 weeks. Participants see, on average, three more bird species in their garden in 2014 than they did in 1995. The top five most reported birds still include Blackbird, Blue Tit and Robin, but House Sparrow has dropped from the top five, and Woodpigeon has climbed there from outside of the top 10 in the time the survey has been running.

As well as its scientific outputs, the project also provides benefits for its community of Garden BirdWatch volunteers. As Clare Simm from the Garden BirdWatch team said: "The one thing that many of our volunteers comment on is how their knowledge has developed through watching their garden wildlife for Garden BirdWatch, as well as the interest that they gain from seeing the changes in the bird community over the years, all while collecting simple but incredibly important data on a weekly basis. Given how much has changed during the last 20 years, it will be fascinating to see what happens over the course of the next two decades."

The BTO suggests that if you watch birds and other wildlife in your garden, then you should consider joining this community of citizen scientists and develop your interest, while contributing to this fantastic national project.

To find out more about the BTO Garden BirdWatch, including receiving an enquiry pack and a free copy of our 20th anniversary magazine, please get in touch by emailing gbw@bto.org, telephoning 01842 750050, or write to GBW, BTO, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU. More information can also be found at www.bto.org/gbw.
Content continues after advertisements