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The joy of counting garden birds

David Chapman / 14 January 2016 ( 07 June 2021 )

Wildlife expert David Chapman explains the joy and satisfaction of recording garden bird numbers.

Short-eared owl
Short-eared owl, the 100th species seen in David Chapman's garden. Photograph by David Chapman.

My wife Sarah and I have lived in the same house, in Cornwall, for more than twenty years. As well as having a garden we are fortunate enough to have a smallholding of around five acres on which we try to promote wildlife.

Watching birds in the garden is an entertaining way of spending time and brings more than sufficient reward for the cost and time involved in putting out food for them. What I think I enjoy most is the opportunity to see some of our most colourful birds.

A rewarding pastime 

As a keen birdwatcher I have kept a diary of unusual garden bird sightings and a list of all the birds I have seen on, or from, our land. In 2015 I reached a major landmark with my one hundredth bird species. The list includes a good range of scarce species, the rarest of all was a purple heron some fifteen years ago.

Our commonest garden bird is the house sparrow, a fact which might not seem noteworthy but given that it took about four years to see our first one I take considerable pride in the fact that they now reside in the nest boxes which I built for them under our eaves.

Seeing uncommon birds on our land always gives me a buzz but I get longer term-satisfaction from seeing the blackbirds feeding on the berries of the pyracantha that I not only planted but also grew from a cutting.

Find out what to plant to encourage birds

I like to see the goldfinches balancing on the teasels which we allow to grow in our flower beds and I love watching the tawny owls fledging young from a nest box at the edge of our wood.

One day in the autumn I was on the phone to my mum, staring out of the upstairs window. A large bird with an unfamiliar shape flapped lazily high in the sky. I put the phone on loudspeaker and picked up my binoculars. I don't think my mum noticed any change in our conversation until I shouted "short-eared owl!"

Keeping lists of birds seen in the garden can be great fun and can even contribute to our understanding of their behaviour and distribution. New Year is the best time to start, the challenge is to keep it up for a year and see how many birds you can spot. 

If you want a shorter-term goal then try taking part in the RSPB's annual Big Garden Birdwatch during January.

Best time to birdwatch

To maximise the number of birds you see I suggest watching the birds early in the day when they are most active, but don’t worry if you don’t see many birds, all survey information is equally valuable.

Taking part in nationwide bird counts

In recent years I have added information to my enjoyment of garden bird watching by taking part in a survey organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Each year, since 1979, the RSPB has collected data from the public to inform them of trends in bird populations.

Everyone can take part but first you have to understand the rules. The idea is that we all record the highest number of each species that we see at any one time during the one hour survey period. The survey can be undertaken at any time during the correct weekend in January. The internet has made a huge difference to the speed with which data can be uploaded and processed. We are now able to submit data online and even look for the results of the survey by county as well as nationally.

The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch is the world's largest wildlife survey and plays a big part in understanding changing bird species numbers over the years. Find out more on the RSPB website.

A more long-term option is taking part in the British Trust for Ornithology's Garden BirdWatch, which takes place throughout the year. BTO recommend spending at least 20 minutes a week recording garden birds.

Read David Chapman's tips for photographing garden birds

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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.