Still waiting for the chill that brings trill to our gardens

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Noticed a distinct lack of seasonal robins in the garden this winter? Like many things, it’s all down to the weather says Liam Creedon.

The mild weather has meant garden birds seem a bit thin on the ground this winter, but a sudden drop in the mercury could see flocks on our feeders just in time for the world’s biggest birdwatch

The end of the year is traditionally a period of high drama in the garden, when what is an oasis of calm throughout much of the year suddenly becomes the setting for scenes of epic gluttony and violence.

Feathers fly, peanuts are pecked and breadcrumbs bolted down as avian marauders flock to our back gardens to find enough food to survive the freezing, dark days of midwinter. But for many of us, so far this winter, things have been strangely quiet. Peanut feeders hang un-pecked, fat balls swing un-touched and bread crumbs have been left to go mouldy.

Has there been a secret avian catastrophe that’s done for our robins and starlings? Thankfully, no. As ever, it’s all down to the weather. December has been very blustery but equally very mild. Few places have so far been troubled by persistent frost and snow. As a result the countryside still holds large caches of food following a bountiful summer and autumn. Quite simply, the birds have not needed our handouts.

RSPB wildlife adviser Richard James explains: “It’s down to the unusually mild weather we’re experiencing at the moment. Birds will still be able to get hold of natural food in the wider countryside so haven’t had to call upon us humans for help yet.”

But a sudden drop in the temperature, which is almost inevitable at this time of year, will see things change rapidly with birds descending upon our feeders and fat balls en masse.

The RSPB has been inundated with callers worried about the lack of garden birds, but they are advising people to carry on providing food and water as normal, just in slightly smaller quantities to avoid waste.

In recent decades our gardens have become vitally important food stations for wild birds. Millions are helped through the winter by people providing a now mind-boggling array of food ranging from tiny nyjer seed to freeze-dried worms.

This very British love of garden birds is celebrated each winter with the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Starting 35 years ago the event is now the biggest garden wildlife survey in the world with a staggering 600,000 people peering through their windows to count sparrows, tits and finches last year alone. Over the decades the results have helped build up a very detailed account of the ups and downs of garden visitors and for the first time the RSPB will launch an online bird counting tool to allow results to be recorded directly on to laptops, tablets and smartphones.

In 1979, the first year of the survey, goldfinches were very rarely recorded in gardens; now these beautiful tiny finches regularly appear in the top 15 species seen each year. Blue tits, great tits and coal tits have all increased in number over the decades but in recent years the survey has helped to reveal ongoing and serious declines in many of our most cherished species.

In the 2012 Birdwatch, starlings hit an all-time low with their numbers falling a further 16 last year. House sparrows, until recently one of our most recognisable and widespread species have also declined alarmingly – dropping 17 per cent in gardens in 2013 compared to 2012. Other losers last year included the bullfinch which was down 20 per cent and the dunnock – down by 13 per cent.

This year, in a break from tradition, organisers are also seeking sightings of wildlife such as squirrels, badgers, frogs and toads as well as birds to help build an overall picture of how important our back gardens really are for nature.

Richard Bashford, Big Garden Birdwatch manager, says: “Every single person who is taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch is helping us learn about what is happening with our much-loved feathered friends. At this time of year particularly they come to our gardens for help – with food, water and shelter. Millions of people around the UK help give them a home by providing these things and the Big Garden Birdwatch allows us to check what impact their help is having.

“The situation has been dire for birds like starlings and sparrows over the last 30 years, but by knowing the exact situation we can help to put things right.”

To take part, spend one hour during the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend (January 25-26) counting species in your garden. You then have three weeks to submit your results to the RSPB at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.