How is the British Trust for Ornithology different from RSPB?

     Ieuan Evans

This is probably the question people ask us most often, particularly if they are encountering BTO for the first time. Both BTO and the RSPB are British charities working in the field of bird research and conservation, so it’s no surprise that people get confused between the two. As BTO’s Head of Membership & Volunteer Engagement and a former RSPB staff member, Ieuan Evans is ideally placed to answer this question; in this article, Ieuan shares his take on what makes the BTO unique.

My short answer to the question of what BTO does goes something like this; BTO carries out surveys, research and analysis to produce the facts and figures about birds and other wildlife that organisations like the RSPB then use to help influence conservation policy. BTO is a completely independent and impartial organisation, so the data we collect are trusted and used not only by RSPB, but also by Government, policy makers, industry and other conservation organisations.

Apart from a small but beautifully formed nature reserve surrounding our headquarters in Thetford, we don’t own or buy land for conservation, nor do we run political campaigns. We are driven by research and our core aim is to produce high-quality, unbiased scientific information, rather than to conserve land or campaign on political issues. At the heart of BTO is a large army of volunteer birdwatchers who collect most of the data we produce on birds and wildlife.

As many people expect, BTO does work in collaboration with the RSPB. The RSPB recognises BTO’s expertise in survey design, volunteer mobilisation and data analysis. The RSPB, among others, provides important funding and expertise to the Breeding Bird Survey, the Wetland Bird Survey and BirdTrack, all of which are organised by BTO. The results from these surveys benefit birds and other wildlife, by feeding directly into the conservation work that RSPB and others carry out, and by informing Government policies and land management practices.

In order to give people an idea of the kind of work we do, I would like to highlight two very different projects:

  The 1988-91 Atlas examined breeding birds,
what has changed since then?

Bird Atlas 2007-11 is a collaborative project between BTO, BirdWatch Ireland and the Scottish Ornithologists’ Club, and is aimed at making a record of all the bird species found in Britain and Ireland. It’s a mammoth project directly involving almost 20,000 volunteers over four years of fieldwork and drawing on every other survey that we organise. BTO’s expertise and experience has been tested to the full by the sheer amount of data produced – over 203 million birds of 570 species have been recorded! It’s been 20 years since the last atlas, so when the Bird Atlas 2007-11 book is published in 2013, the results will set the bird conservation agenda for many years to come. It will, for example, provide some important and fascinating insights into how bird populations are changing in response to factors like climate change, alterations in farming practices and policy decisions.

         Cuckoo tracking project

The long-running bird Ringing Scheme is a very different area of our work. Ringing is organised by BTO, with much of the work being done in partnership with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), and produces detailed records about the movements, productivity and survival of birds. The concept of bird migration was first proved by ringing, and the records produced by bird ringing of long-distance and long-lived birds have been amazing us ever since. The astounding 18,000 Km annual migration of the Arctic Tern and the amazing 50 year lifespan of a Manx Shearwater are two such stories. Ringers do not just facilitate the study of migration; the detailed work on productivity and survival reveals the pinch-points in birds’ lives – how the intricate patterns of weather and food-supplies impact on population levels. During 2010, 2,500 ringers ringed over a million birds, helping us to understand the reasons for population changes. New technology is allowing ringers to fit ever smaller and more sophisticated tracking devices and these are revealing fantastically exciting new details about the amazing journeys that birds undertake – the BTO Cuckoo tracking project is a prime example of this.

The generation of solid, reliable scientific information about our wildlife is at the heart of good conservation, and BTO’s role in this is made possible by the efforts of our volunteers and the generosity of our members and supporters. I hope this article has helped to explain the unique and important role that BTO plays and why it is so important that we can continue to carry out this work well into the future. If you’d like to show your support for our work, you can do so by volunteering, joining us as a member or by making a donation - we’d love to hear from you.

The work of BTO and the RSPB complements each other well, BTO focusing on providing facts and figures about birds and researching the causes of any changes in their populations, the RSPB focusing on direct conservation. Comparing two flagship projects, BTO’s year-round Garden BirdWatch and the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, provides another great way of illustrating the difference between BTO and the RSPB, and this will be the focus of a future this space!

Read the BTO Garden BirdWatch blog article on how BTO's Garden Birdwatch differs from RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch.

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