CBC/BBS trends

The Common Birds Census (CBC) and the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) have been described separately in earlier sections. This page describes how the results have been combined to derive joint CBC/BBS trends, extending from the 1960s to the present.

As previously noted, the CBC has been an enormously influential project, providing the main source of information on national population levels in the UK since its inception in 1962. Coverage was predominantly in lowland England, where the numbers of potential volunteers are greatest, while coverage was more patchy in more sparsely populated regions and especially the uplands (Marchant et al. 1990). CBC plots were situated in a limited number of habitats, predominantly farmland and woodland.

Within a large rectangle of southeastern Britain (covering England and Wales south and east from Seascale, Scarborough and Exeter), the plots are nevertheless believed to be broadly representative, at least of lowland land-classes (Fuller et al. 1985). For species such as Wood Warbler and Meadow Pipit that have the greater part of their numbers in the far west or north of Britain, however, the CBC may not have accurately reflected UK trends.

The BBS, on account of its more rigorous, stratified random sampling design, and its simplicity in the field, produces better coverage of the previously under-represented regions and habitats. In some early editions of 'Breeding Birds in the Wider Countryside’ (e.g. Baillie et al. 2002), separate indices were published from CBC and BBS data, for those species with sufficiently large sample sizes. There being no new CBC data since 2000, however, it is unnecessary to present a CBC-only trend – except for those few species that are now so rare that BBS has been unable to contribute.

For most purposes, the presentation and analysis of longer time-series is required, dating back to before the establishment of the BBS but coming right up to the present day. The calculation of 25-year alert designations, as in this report, provides just one example. This need led the BTO to research the compatibility of indices from BBS and CBC data in various years and regions, and the possibility of deriving trustworthy long-term indices from the two data sources in combination (Freeman et al. 2003, 2007a).

This research suggested that for the vast majority of species considered there was no significant difference between population trends, calculated from the two surveys, based on that part of the country where CBC data are sufficient to support a meaningful comparison.

Where a statistically significant difference was found, this was sometimes for very abundant species for which the power to detect even a biologically insubstantial difference was considerable. Within this region, therefore, long-term trends based on CBC and BBS data can be produced for almost all species previously monitored by the CBC alone.

For (Freeman et al. 2003, 2007a) this was the area covered by Fuller et al. (1985), because CBC plots in that region were shown to be representative of lowland farmland there. As this region covers the bulk of England, and for consistency with the rest of this report, we have produced joint indices for CBC/BBS for the whole of England (the CBC/BBS England index), rather than just the English part of the 'Fuller rectangle'.

A second question then is whether one can obtain reliable trends over the same period for the entire UK. That is, since prior to 1994 only CBC data are available, are the population trends within the region well covered by the CBC typical of those for the UK as a whole? The shortage of CBC data in the north and west means that the only way of investigating this is via the BBS data.

Significant differences in trends between the area well covered by the CBC and the rest of the UK were found for approximately half the species (see Freeman et al. 2003, 2007a, for full details). For such species, a regional bias in CBC data means that no reliable UK index can be produced prior to 1994.

In summary, joint population indices dating back to the start of the CBC can continue to be produced for that part of the country well served by the CBC (essentially England) for almost all common species. However, a similar UK index can be produced for only about 50% of species (CBC/BBS UK index).

Data analysis

This report presents joint CBC/BBS trends for the UK and/or England, as appropriate. Ideally the trends would have been estimated using generalised additive models (Fewster et al. 2000) but these were too computationally intensive, given the large number of sites involved.

Therefore we fitted a generalised linear model, with counts assumed to follow a Poisson distribution, and a logarithmic link function, to the combined CBC/BBS data. Standard errors were calculated via a bootstrapping procedure and there is therefore no need to model overdispersion, as it does not affect the parameter estimates. BBS squares were weighted as in standard BBS trend analyses.

CBC plots were assigned the average weight of all BBS squares as this allows them to be incorporated within the analysis while retaining the convention of not applying weights within the BBS sample. The population trend was smoothed using a thin-plate smoothing spline with degrees of freedom about one third the total number of years.

Confidence intervals were calculated via a bootstrap procedure. Bootstrap samples were generated by resampling sites from the original data set, with replacement. A generalised linear model was then fitted to each bootstrap replicate and a smoothing spline fitted to the annual population indices as described above. Confidence limits were then calculated as the appropriate percentiles from the sets of smoothed estimates.

The overall result is a smoothed trend that is mathematically equivalent to that produced from a generalised additive model. The method of estimation is less statistically efficient because the smoothing is not incorporated within the estimation procedure, and is likely to have resulted in more conservative statistical tests and wider confidence intervals. However this compromise was necessary to make it possible to fit the trends within a reasonable amount of computer time (still several weeks).

Data presentation

Indices are plotted on the graphs as annual estimates, with a smoothed trend and its 85% confidence interval. The CBC started on farmland in 1962 and on woodland in 1964. However, the early years of the CBC population indices are strongly influenced by the effects of the unusually severe winters of 1961/62 and 1962/63, as well as by developments in methodology (Marchant et al. 1990). Joint CBC/BBS indices have been calculated using only the data from 1966 onward, therefore, and population changes are calculated back to 1967.


This report should be cited as: Massimino, D., Woodward, I.D., Hammond, M.J., Barber, L., Barimore, C., Harris, S.J., Leech, D.I., Noble, D.G., Walker, R.H., Baillie, S.R. & Robinson, R.A. (2020) BirdTrends 2020: trends in numbers, breeding success and survival for UK breeding birds. BTO Research Report 732. BTO, Thetford. www.bto.org/birdtrends