A golden year for the goldfinch revealed in annual UK bird count

Lucy Purdy

The latest results from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch reveal a surge in sightings of goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit. More than 420,000 took part in the annual survey in January this year

Results from this year’s RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch suggest it has been a good year for the goldfinch, along with a number of other small birds, after a surge in sightings in gardens across the country. Favourable conditions led to a surge in sightings of goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit, along with other smaller garden birds.

There was a dip in sightings of more solitary UK species such as blackbird and robin, as the mild winter meant they spent more time foraging for food away from people’s gardens.


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More than 420,000 people took part in the count this year, spending an hour over the last weekend in January watching the birds that visit their garden or another outdoor space. In total, 6.7m birds were counted. Now in its 39th year, the event helps the RSPB build a picture of how species are doing.

Recording sightings of the goldfinch – a brightly coloured, sociable bird – were up 11 per cent on 2017 figures, its bright red face being spotted in more than two-thirds of gardens. Other small birds that are thought to have benefited from the mild January weather include the long-tailed tit – of which sightings were up 16 per cent – the coal tit, of which sightings were up 15 per cent, and the blue tit, of which sightings increased by 5 per cent.

Long-tailed tit. Image: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

It also proved a good year for the greenfinch after a 5 per cent rise in sightings, a welcome sign for a species that has undergone a 60 per cent decline in sightings since the first survey in 1979.

RSPB experts say the influx of these species to gardens is probably linked to good conditions during their successful breeding season in 2017, combined with favourable autumn and winter weather.

Greenfinch. Image: Ben Hall (rspb-images.com)

Daniel Hayhow, RSPB conservation scientist, said: “Our garden birds are a part of our everyday life, whether it’s the robin perched on the garden fence or the flock of starlings you see on your way to work. To have hundreds of thousands of people spend an hour watching the wildlife in their garden isn’t only great to see, but it also helps us build up a picture of how our garden birds are doing, which is really helpful.

Our garden birds are a part of our everyday life, whether it’s the robin perched on the garden fence or the flock of starlings you see on your way to work

“Last summer was a really good year for many breeding birds with warm weather creating great conditions for many smaller birds to raise their young to adulthood. The rise in sightings of goldfinch, long-tailed tit and coal tit, along with chaffinches and greenfinches, goes to show that in the absence of cold weather they can survive the winter months in good numbers. Looking at the results it is likely that across the UK this is what people are seeing in their garden.”

Coal tit. Image: Chris Gomersall (rspb-images.com)

It is likely that the warmer temperatures during the autumn and winter will have made it easier for these birds to find food, like insects, in gardens, which in previous colder winters would have been harder to come by because of frosts and snow.

The survey also highlighted a dip in the number of recorded sightings of blackbirds (down 18 per cent), robins (down by 12 per cent) and wren (down 11 per cent) on last year’s figures.

House sparrow. Image: Ben Andrew (rspb-images.com)

Hayhow said: “We all will have noticed that the weather earlier in the winter was slightly warmer than we’re used to, and our garden birds have felt this too. It’s usual for there to be more food available in the wider countryside during a mild winter meaning birds are less reliant on the treats we put out on the garden feeders. However, unlike the finches and tits, robins and wrens did not have a good breeding season in 2017 and data from other surveys indicate that their numbers may be down overall this year.”

The house sparrow remained at the top of the Big Garden Birdwatch rankings as the most commonly seen garden bird, with more than one million recorded sightings over the weekend. Starling held down the second spot once more, with the blue tit moving up one spot to conclude the top three.

To read all results, visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch

Featured image: John Bridges (rspb-images.com)


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