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Armchair birdwatching

Paul Stancliffe

If you have been tempted to take up bird watching but have been put off by the daunting prospect of the large number of birds to identify, or the thought of travelling around the country in search of them, then a spot of bird watching closer to home might just be the answer, says Paul Stancliffe of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)


You can't get much closer to home than your garden and, with the tempting prospect of being able to bird watch from the comfort of an armchair, there is every reason to take more interest in the antics of the birds that visit your garden.

'Garden bird watching' is a great way in which to engage with birds, to learn to identify the different species and to study their behaviour. You can also make a valuable contribution to bird conservation, but more of that later.

Gardens are incredibly important places for birds - not least because private gardens occupy more land than that taken up by nature reserves. This means that what happens in gardens really matters.

Some of the birds that use your garden, such as Robin, House Sparrow and Wren, are likely to already be familiar, but many others use gardens on a seasonal basis and may be new to you.

Every year the BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch team receive reports from members who have seen rare birds such as Wrynecks and Waxwings in their gardens. The key to successful garden bird watching is to make your garden attractive to as wide a range of species as possible. For most people, this is best achieved by providing a range of foods, some on the bird table or on the ground and others in hanging feeders.

Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and the various tit species will find peanuts irresistible, and by putting out seed mixes you will attract Greenfinches and Chaffinches into your garden. There are even insect based mixes and live food available for insect-eating birds such as Robins. 

Putting food on a bird table or in a hanging bird feeder isn't the only way of providing nourishment. By planting shrubs and bushes that fruit in the autumn, such as Pyracantha and Cotoneaster, you will be giving the birds an important natural food source. During the winter months Blackbirds and other thrushes are drawn to these bushes and will often keep returning until they have stripped them bare. Bushes and shrubs also provide essential cover for birds to nest in.

If you have fruit trees in your garden, wind fallen apples and other soft fruits also provide an important food source when berries are in short supply in the surrounding countryside but, arguably, one of the most important ingredients in a bird garden is the addition of a water feature. This could be as simple as a birdbath or a bowl put out for the birds to drink from and bathe in, or it could take the form of a garden pond. Whatever shape it takes you can be assured that this is the one feature that all the birds that visit your garden will use.

Even the smallest of gardens has room for birds and, once you have started to attract new ones into your garden, you can add to the enjoyment of watching them by keeping a diary of all the different types that you see. This will enable you to build up a picture of when the different birds visit and what they feed on when they are there.

Although not essential, a small pair of binoculars will enhance your garden bird watching enormously. The beauty of the golden yellow wing flash of a Goldfinch or the iridescence of a Starling have to be seen through binoculars to be believed; using binoculars opens up a whole new world and adds another dimension to your garden.

A guide to garden birds will also help you to identify new visitors, the BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch Book is ideal as it is one of the few guides that only deals with garden birds, meaning you won't have to wade through all the birds of Britain and Europe before you find what you are looking for.

You will find that the more you learn about garden birds, the more you will want to learn. By taking this one step further and joining a national survey, you will be contributing to the understanding and conservation of garden birds. It was garden bird watchers that first highlighted the decline in the House Sparrow and it will be garden bird watchers that will be keeping an eye on the falling numbers of Starlings, and they will do all this without even leaving the house.

One such survey is the BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch survey is the largest survey of its kind in the world and the data that its members collect is used to influence government policy, this is real citizen science in action, and what's more anybody can take part.

Young and old, from six to sixty, watching the birds in gardens has something for everyone, and it can be done over a relaxing cup of tea. Who knows - Once you have started garden bird watching you may well want to spread your wings a little farther afield?

For more information on the BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch survey visit, or write to GBW, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk, IP24 2PU, or telephone 01842-750050.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.