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BBWC Home > Contents > Methodology > Common Birds Census

2.2 Common Birds Census

The Common Birds Census (CBC), which ran from 1962 to 2000, was the first of the BTO's schemes for monitoring population trends among widespread breeding birds, but has now been superseded for this purpose by BBS.

The CBC was instigated to provide sound information on farmland bird populations in the face of rapid changes in agricultural practice. Although the original emphasis was on farmland, woodland plots were added by 1964. Fieldwork was carried out by a team of 250–300 volunteers. The same observers surveyed the same plots using the same methods year after year. On average, plots were censused for around seven consecutive years but a few dedicated observers surveyed the same sites for more than 30 years. Farmland plots averaged around 70 hectares in extent. Woodland plots were generally smaller, averaging just over 20 hectares. A small number of plots of other habitats, including heathlands and small wetlands, were also surveyed annually, especially before 1985.

A territory-mapping approach was used to estimate the number and positions of territories of each species present on each survey plot during the breeding season. Volunteers visited their survey plots typically eight to ten times between late March and early July and all contacts with birds, either by sight or sound, were plotted on outline maps at a standard scale of 1:2,500. Codes were used to note each bird's species, with sex and age where possible, and also to record activity such as song or nest-building. The registrations were then transferred to species maps and returned to BTO headquarters for analysis. The pattern of registrations on the species maps reveals the numbers of territories for each species. All assessments of territory number were made by trained BTO staff, applying rigorous guidelines, to ensure consistency between estimates across sites and years. Observers also provided maps and other details of the habitat on their plots. This makes it possible to match the distribution of bird territories with habitat features, providing the potential for detailed studies of bird–habitat relationships.

In 1990, the results from the Common Birds Census were brought together in the book Population Trends in British Breeding Birds (Marchant et al. 1990). This landmark publication discussed long-term population trends for the years 1962 to 1988 for 164 species, with CBC or WBS population graphs for around two-thirds of these.

The results from the Common Birds Census (CBC) provided reliable population trends for more than 60 of the UK's commoner breeding species and, through the linking of CBC with BBS, continue to be hugely influential in determining conservation priorities in the UK countryside. The store of detailed maps of almost a million birds' territories, collected through the CBC and maintained by BTO since the early 1960s, is a uniquely valuable resource for investigating the relationships between breeding birds and their environment, over wide temporal and spatial scales.

The weaknesses of the CBC as a monitor of UK bird populations were largely related to the time-consuming nature of both fieldwork and analysis. This inevitably limited the number of volunteers able to participate in the scheme, with the result that areas with few birdwatchers were under-represented. Constrained by the relatively small sample size, CBC concentrated on farmland and woodland habitats. Bird population trends in built-up areas and the uplands were therefore poorly represented. Furthermore, as the plots were chosen by the observers, some may not have been representative of the surrounding countryside and some bias towards bird-rich habitats might be suspected. It is for these reasons that the BBS was introduced in 1994. The two surveys were run in parallel for seven years to allow calibration between the results: for many species, CBC and BBS trends can be linked to form joint CBC/BBS trends that provide ongoing monitoring, continuous since the 1960s (Freeman et al. 2003, 2007a; section 2.3 of this report).

Validation studies

The CBC was the first national breeding bird monitoring scheme of its kind anywhere in the world and its value has been widely recognised internationally. The territory-mapping method adopted by the CBC is acknowledged as the most efficient and practical way of estimating breeding bird numbers in small areas, and has been well validated. Although intensive nest searches may sometimes reveal more birds, a comparison by Snow (1965) concluded that mapping censuses were a good measure of the true breeding population for 70% of species. Experiments to test differences between observers' abilities to detect birds found that, although there was considerable variation between individual abilities, the observers were consistent from year to year (O'Connor & Marchant 1981). As the CBC relies on data from plots covered by the same observer in consecutive years, this source of bias has no implications for the CBC's ability to identify population trends. It has also been confirmed that the sample of plots from which CBC results are drawn changed little in composition or character over the years (Marchant et al. 1990) and that the results of territory analysis are not affected by changes in analysts, once trained (O'Connor & Marchant 1981). Fuller et al. (1985) found that farmland CBC plots were representative of ITE lowland land-classes throughout England (excluding the extreme north and southwest), and closely reflected the agricultural statistics for southern and eastern Britain.

Data analysis

Population changes are modelled using a generalised additive model (GAM), a type of log–linear regression model that incorporates a smoothing function (Fewster et al. 2000). This has replaced the Mountford model that employed a six-year moving window (Mountford 1982, 1985, Peach & Baillie 1994) and was used to produce annual population indices until 1999, but the principles are similar. These models are also very similar to log–linear Poisson regression as implemented by program TRIM (Pannekoek & van Strien 1996). Counts are modelled as the product of site and year effects on the assumption that between-year changes are homogeneous across plots. Smoothing is used to remove short-term fluctuations (e.g. those caused by periods of severe weather or by measurement error) and thus reveal the underlying pattern of population change. This is achieved by setting the degrees of freedom to about 0.3 times the number of years in the series. Confidence limits on the indices are estimated by bootstrapping (a resampling method; Manly 1991) to avoid making any assumptions about the underlying distribution of counts.

Indices are plotted as the blue line on the graphs, and provide a relative measure of population size on an arithmetic scale relative to an arbitrary value of 100 in one of the years of the sequence. If an index value increases from 100 to 200, the population has doubled; if it declines from 100 to 50, it has halved. The two green lines on the graphs, above and below the index line, are the upper and lower 85% confidence limits. A narrow confidence interval indicates that the index series is estimated precisely, and a wider interval indicates that it is less precise. The use of 85% confidence limits allows relatively straightforward comparison of points along the modelled line: non-overlap of the 85% confidence limits is equivalent to a significant difference at approximately the 5% level (Anganuzzi 1993).

Caveats are provided to show where the data suffer from a 'Small sample' if the mean number of plots was less than 20. Data are flagged as 'Unrepresentative?' if the average abundance of a species in 10-km squares containing CBC plots was less than that in other 10-km squares of the species' distribution in the UK (as measured from 1988–91 Breeding Atlas data (Gibbons et al. 1993)), or, where average abundances could not be calculated, if expert opinion judged that CBC data may not be representative.

In practice nearly all CBC data included in this report have been combined with BBS data to provide joint CBC/BBS trends, using the methods described in the next section. These methods for producing joint trends represent an extension of those described above.

Next section – 2.3 Joint CBC/BBS trends

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This report should be cited as: Baillie, S.R., Marchant, J.H., Leech, D.I., Renwick, A.R., Joys, A.C., Noble, D.G., Barimore, C., Conway, G.J., Downie, I.S., Risely, K. & Robinson, R.A. (2010). Breeding Birds in the Wider Countryside: their conservation status 2010. BTO Research Report No. 565. BTO, Thetford. (http://www.bto.org/birdtrends)

Pages maintained by Iain Downie, Mandy T Andrews and Laura Smith: Last updated 21.10.2010