Winter days can be cold and unforgiving; sometimes there is snow and many of us loathe the additional time spent in the morning defrosting our cars so that we can drive to work, if COVID restrictions allow. But the vast majority of us move from one heated location to another, with food in our bellies and a hot drink to keep out the chill. Now imagine that all you have to keep you warm is a thin set of feathers, your food sources are covered in 3 inches of snow (2 inches deeper than the length of your legs) and all available water sources are frozen! Such is the plight of many of our birds in winter, where every winter day becomes a life and death struggle.
Luckily, there are many of us who have pledged to assist our feathered friends, who put out bird food and clean water to help the birds keep the worst of the weather at bay and give them a fighting chance to survive the winter months. In return, we are rewarded with the sound of birdsong in our gardens, the beauty of seeing our garden full of life, and the satisfaction of knowing we have done our bit to give nature a much-needed helping hand.
We have even organised ourselves into groups and associations to be better able to advocate for our feathered friends through lobbying, fund-raising and conservation. This is the work of groups like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) who have been passionate about nature and dedicated to saving it since its formation in 1889.
A brief history of the RSPB
The RSPB was the brainchild of Emily Williamson, who created an all-women group called the Society for the Protection of Birds in 1889. As the Victorian desire for fashionable exotic feathers grew, she became frustrated at the lack of progress from the all-male British Ornithologists Union in failing to protect birds such as the little egrets, great crested grebes, and birds of paradise who were being driven to the edge of extinction. Emily found others who shared her passion for birds and soon joined forces with Etta Lemon and Eliza Phillips and the movement grew in popularity, so much so that in 1904, the society was granted a Royal Charter, becoming the RSPB. In 1921, the Importation of Plumage (Prohibition) Act was passed, and the RSPB had run its first successful campaign. They bought their first nature reserve in Minsmere in 1947, and have gone from strength to strength, as today they manage over 200 reserves across the UK.
The Big Schools Bird Watch
Each year, the RSPB organises a nationwide bird watch over the course of one weekend in January called the Big Schools Bird Watch. They use it to estimate the number of wild birds in the country and to spot changes and trends in their numbers. In 2022 the event runs from Friday 28th January to Sunday 30 January. People from all walks of life up and down the country are asked to spend an hour in, or looking at, their garden, identifying and counting the numbers of birds they see, and reporting this data back to the RSPB to help with their data collection and conservation efforts.
What do they do with the data?
Once the data has been collated, there are three categories, red, amber or green, that each bird can be placed in, in order of conservation importance. The birds whose plight is of greatest concern are put on the red list, and in 2021, there were 70 species making up this list. This is nearly double the length of the first report in 1996. Some of our most popular birds such as the swift, house martin and greenfinch are now on the list along with cuckoos and puffins. The Society reported that birds who migrate to Africa for the winter, seem to be doing less well and the number of water birds who spend the winter in the UK, has also declined including the Bewick Swan, dunlin and the goldeneye. The red list species are globally threatened, and have experienced at least a 50% decline in UK breeding populations over the last 25 years. There have been success stories however, with the white-tailed eagle increasing in numbers and moving from the red to the amber list, but it is more crucial than ever that we begin reassessing our relationship with nature and taking part in the Big Garden Birdwatch is one thing that everyone can do to help.
It’s easy to take part and the RSPB have put a lot of thought into how they can get everyone to join in. They have created a website full of information sheets, facts and resources about how people can get involved including some resources specifically aimed at early years settings that you can access here. You’ll find sheets to record your sightings in both English and Welsh, and in different number formats making them easy to use with younger children, as well as lesson plans, factsheets, colouring downloads, match games, story books and card sets, and a whole lot more. You’ll find ways to identify different birdsong, bird seed recipes, and lots of fun crafts related to birds so there really is no excuse not to get involved in one way or the other.
The bird watch part itself asks you to spend an hour counting the birds you see and report back to the RSPB. You need to register on their website and will receive a specially prepared pack to help everyone take part including differentiated resources in English and Welsh. If you take part, you can achieve a Wild Challenge award to display proudly in your setting too.
Tips to help birds in winter
- Feed the birds with a high energy bird seed mix and do this regularly, scattering seeds in sheltered places so they can be kept dry and accessible
- Put out fresh water - birds need it to drink and to bathe in so remember to refill it especially in freezing conditions
- Put up some bird boxes in your garden or outdoor space to encourage feathered tenants
- Remember that not all birds like to feed from a bird table – there are many ground-feeding birds too such as thrushes and blackbirds, so remember to create a ground-level feeding station too
- Clean your feeders regularly
More information is available at: