BirdWatch Ireland’s Irish Garden Bird Survey returns next week, for the 34th consecutive winter. The survey is very simple and asks people to spend a short amount of time each week watching their garden birds and recording what they see. It plays an important role in tracking the fortunes of some of Ireland’s best-loved wildlife.
On Their Way
BirdWatch Ireland has received lots of correspondence from concerned people all around the country whose garden birds are ‘missing’. This is simply a result of the abundance of natural food available to them in the countryside, but as the weeks go on and weather gets colder more and more birds will be retreating to gardens for food and shelter, just in time for the Irish Garden Bird Survey!
Last winter there was a big increase in the number of Bramblings in Irish gardens. Bramblings are a close relative of our native Chaffinch that breed in northern Scandinavia and are quite rare in Ireland. Every few years however, we get a big influx, and last year 4% of gardens in 21 counties had at least one of these Scandinavian migrants hiding amongst their Chaffinches. “There was a noticeable spike in their numbers in mid-January, corresponding with the lowest recorded temperatures of the winter, highlighting just how important it is to put out food and water in advance of frost or snow!” said Brian Burke, who coordinates the survey for Birdwatch Ireland.
Other notable rarities include the invasive Ring-necked Parakeets in a select few Dublin gardens and a Rustic Bunting in a garden in County Down. Rustic Buntings nest in woodlands in eastern Scandinavia and Siberia and spend the winter in south-east Asia, and this was only the 23rd record of the species in Ireland. A Mediterranean Gull in a Dublin garden represents only the third record of the species in the Irish Garden Bird Survey, though they’re definitely increasing in coastal habitats.
“Taking part in the survey is really easy, and while it doesn’t require a huge commitment, it definitely provides people with extra motivation to keep an even closer eye on their garden birds, and that’s when you might spot something new,” said Brian. “It might be something rare at a national level, or something common but that you’ve never seen in your garden before. There’s excitement either way!”
Common Species, increases and decreases
Robins were seen in the highest proportion of gardens last winter (>99%), followed by Blackbird (>97%) and Blue Tit (>96%), with Magpie moving up to fourth place (90%). House Sparrows were the most numerous birds recorded (average count of 9-10 per garden), followed by Starling and Goldfinch (8-9 per garden).
Our native hibernicus subspecies of Coal Tit fell to its worst ranking in 20 years (11th place, <80% of gardens) after a series of poor years. Another species showing significant decreases was Song Thrush (down 10%, from 13th to 17th), which may have suffered high nest losses because of the cold start to the summer the previous year. Pied Wagtail, also known by many as the ‘Willy Wagtail’, also declined by 10%.
Notable increases include the Jay, a colourful member of the crow family which also belongs to a unique Irish hibernicus subspecies. They were recorded in more than 10% of gardens for the first time ever, reflecting a widespread increase in the Irish population. More common members of the crow family, such as Jackdaw, Rook and Hooded Crow all increased last year, as did all three of our most common pigeon species: Woodpigeon, Collared Dove and Feral Pigeon. Great Spotted Woodpeckers, which first began their colonisation of Ireland around 2005, were recorded in 5% of Irish gardens, across 21 counties, and continue to increase across the country, favouring peanut feeders in the winter.
Avian Flu and Trichomonosis in Garden Birds
BirdWatch Ireland would like to stress that the risk of Avian Flu in garden birds is very low at present and that it is safe to continue to feed your garden birds. Avian Flu decimated some seabird species such as Gannet this summer, with hundreds of dead and unwell birds washing up on beaches, while in more recent months it has been swans, geese and ducks that have been infected. “Bird flu is currently circulating in our waterbird species, but these birds don’t tend to interact closely with garden birds. Swans and sparrows don’t hang out together, so it’s unlikely bird flu will be brought into gardens. It’s a situation we’ll continue to keep a close eye on, however,” said Brian.
The main risk to garden birds continues to be the trichomonas parasite, which has been infecting finches for over 15 years now. Greenfinches were present in fewer than half of gardens last winter, down from over 90% of gardens in the early 2000’s. Also, Chaffinches in urban areas are declining faster than those in rural parts of the country, apparently because there are more feeders in urban gardens where they pick up the infection. “If you’re putting out feeders, you also have a responsibility to clean them thoroughly at least once a week to ensure the costs don’t outweigh the benefits to the birds,” notes Brian.
Supporting the Survey
The Irish Garden Bird Survey is once again sponsored by Ballymaloe, whose support in recent years has helped ensure the survey has gone from strength to strength, improving monitoring at national level and allowing for greater focus on conservation issues facing individual species.
“Collectively Ballymaloe House, Ballymaloe Cookery School and Ballymaloe Foods are delighted to sponsor the Irish Garden Bird Survey annually in memory of our founder Ivan Allen. Ivan, Myrtle Allen’s husband, loved the birdlife in and around Ballymaloe House and farmed considerately ensuring their natural habitat was undisturbed. His sustainable farming practices were undoubtedly ahead of their time. Supporting this Irish Garden Bird Survey is Ballymaloe businesses way to continually celebrate Ivan’s passion for birdlife, whilst supporting Irish birdlife conservation in his name.” Laura Behan, General Manager of Ballymaloe House.
To find out more about the survey and the different trends and patterns seen for different garden birds over the last 30 years, listen to the survey coordinator Brian Burke talk to Ricky Whelan and Niall Hatch for the ‘In Your Nature’ podcast, by clicking here.
For full details about the survey, how to take part and looking after your garden birds, click here.