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Big Garden Birdwatch: The winners and losers over 40 years

Coal tit Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The coal tit has become a more regular sight across the UK

Which birds do you see in your garden - and which no longer visit?

For 40 years amateur birdwatchers have charted the dramatic changes in the Big Garden Birdwatch, run by conservation charity the RSPB.

The wildlife survey, which began in 1979, has charted how birds such as the song thrush and greenfinch have been overtaken by the woodpigeon and long-tailed tit.

As it returns this weekend, the RSPB has revealed the winners and the losers of the UK's changing bird population.

Winners

Woodpigeon

Change since 1979 = 950%

Image copyright Elvira Draat

The UK's largest and commonest pigeon can be shy in the countryside but is often tame and approachable in towns and cities.

Woodpigeons are mostly grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, which can be clearly seen when they are in flight.

Its cooing call and the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away are familiar sounds in woodlands.

What they eat: Crops like cabbages, sprouts, peas and grain. Also buds, shoots, seeds, nuts and berries.

Collared dove

Change since 1979 = 307%

Image copyright DaliusBaranauskas

Collared doves only came to the UK in the 1950s, after a rapid spread across Europe from the Middle East.

They are common visitors to gardens with the survey suggesting sightings have increased by more than 300% since 1979.

Pinky-brown and grey in colour, these birds have a distinctive black neck collar and deep red eyes, while their monotonous cooing will be a sound familiar to many.

What they eat: Seeds, grains, buds and shoots.

Coal tit

Change since 1979 = 263%

Image copyright Andrew_Howe

Coal tits have a black cap and throat and white cheeks. They can often be found in parks, gardens and woodland, where a slim bill allows them to feed from conifers better than blue or great tits.

A regular visitor to most feeders, they will take and store food for eating later.

What they eat: Insects, seeds and nuts.

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Magpie

Change since 1979 = 173%

Image copyright Andrew_Howe

"One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, Five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret never to be told," the saying goes.

Known for their noisy chattering, distinctive black-and-white plumage and their scavenging.

What they eat: Wild fruit, berries, grains, household scraps, carrion, small mammals and birds.

Wren

Change since 1979 = 88%

Image copyright Andrew_Howe

A tiny, rotund brown bird with a fine bill and a narrow tail and a surprisingly loud voice.

It is the most common UK breeding bird, although it suffers declines during prolonged, severely cold winters.

Wrens are commonly found in gardens but are less likely to be seen in northern regions of the British Isles.

Sightings of the bird dropped between 1999 and 2009 but their numbers have recovered in recent years.

What they eat: Insects and spiders.

Losers

Starling

Change since 1979 = -80%

Image copyright PA

Starlings are smaller than blackbirds, with a short tail, pointed head and triangular wings.

They spend a lot of the year in flocks and often leave onlookers mesmerised as thousands of the birds move as one in displays known as murmurations.

Despite this, starling numbers are a fraction of what they used to be. While huge flocks used to gather over large cities, nowadays they are more likely to be spotted in rural areas.

Their decline is thought to be due to the loss of permanent pasture, increased use of farm chemicals and a shortage of food and nesting sites in many areas.

What they eat: Invertebrates and fruit.

Song thrush

Change since 1979 = -75%

Image copyright Getty Images

A song thrush flicking its head to smash a snail against a stone or wall was a common sight in 1979.

But their numbers have plummeted in recent decades.

By 2009, its numbers were less than half those recorded in 1979, leaving it down at 20th in the rankings.

The Big Garden Birdwatch helped alert the RSPB to the declining song thrush numbers.

It's smaller and browner than a mistle thrush with smaller spotting. Its habit of repeating song phrases distinguish it from singing blackbirds.

What they eat: Worms, snails and fruit.

Greenfinch

Change since 1979 = -57%

Image copyright Science Photo Library

A common countryside bird found in woods and hedges and another regular garden visitor.

Greenfinch populations declined during the late 1970s and early 1980s but increased dramatically during the 1990s.

A recent decline in numbers has been linked to an outbreak of trichomonosis, a parasite-induced disease which prevents the birds from feeding properly.

What they eat: Seeds and insects

House sparrow

Change since 1979 = -57%

Image copyright Science Photo Library

These noisy birds are common all over the world but here in the UK their population fell continuously in every decade between 1979 and 2009.

However, in recent years their numbers appear to have increased with data from the RSPB's Breeding Bird Survey suggesting numbers are on the rise in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

What they eat: Seeds and scraps.

Chaffinch

Change since 1979 = -55%

Image copyright Andrew_Howe

The chaffinch is one of the most widespread and abundant birds in the British Isles.

Its patterned plumage helps it to blend in when feeding on the ground and it becomes most obvious when it flies, revealing a flash of white on the wings and white outer tail feathers.

It was the fourth most commonly spotted bird in the 1979 survey but has since slipped to 10th place. It's thought their numbers could also have been affected by finch trichomonosis.

What they eat: Insects and seeds.


How to take part

The Big Garden Birdwatch takes place on 26 - 28 January.

Choose a good spot. This could be your back garden, a local park, or any green space. The RSPB advises grabbing a hot drink and some snacks and getting ready to count

Watch the birds and other wildlife for one hour. Only count the birds that land, not those flying over. There's a counting tool on the RSPB website to help keep track of your sightings

If you're not sure what you've just seen, you can find out using their identification tool

Only count the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. So if you see three blue tits, but later two, and then another one, the number to submit is three. That way, you avoid counting the same bird twice.

Go to the Big Garden Birdwatch page and tell the RSPB what you've seen.

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