A quiet Christmas? How Britain & Ireland’s breeding birds fared in 2021

16 Dec 2021 | No. 2021-61

The latest results from the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) report a poor year for many of our birds, largely due to a cooler and wetter spring than average.

The Constant Effort Site (CES) and Nest Record Scheme (NRS) findings show that breeding success was well below average pretty much across the board thanks to the late spring and early summer weather, with birds either failing to fledge young or fledglings succumbing to the cold, wet conditions after leaving the nest. Of the 24 songbird species monitored by ringers operating Constant Effort Sites, 18 produced significantly fewer young in 2021; be they migrant warblers, tits, thrushes or finches, the outcome was consistently poor.

Sadly, the weather in 2021 proved less than welcoming, with temperatures well below average throughout spring and heavy rainfall in May, a key stage of the breeding season. “Initial signs were promising,” explained Lee Barber, Demographic Surveys Officer at the BTO“with many ringers noting good numbers of migrant warblers, such as Chiffchaff, Whitethroat and Sedge Warbler, returning and healthy populations of resident species, including Wren and Cetti’s Warbler.”

That proved to be the highlight, however. As predicted in a cold spring, nest recorders observed that many species were late to start nesting in 2021. “Those of you with nest boxes in your garden may have noticed that the Blue and Great Tits using them started to lay a few days later this year.” noted Dave Leech, the Head of the Ringing & Nest Recording Schemes“Delays were even more pronounced for many migrant birds, including my own study species the Reed Warbler, and Pied Flycatcher, which started to breed almost a week later than the typical date. In some cases a late start can be beneficial, helping birds to track the advancing emergence of their insect prey but that was not to be the case in 2021.” 

Fieldwork for all BTO volunteers has clearly been much more challenging during the pandemic and, after a difficult summer in 2020, the return to the countryside in 2021 was hugely appreciated. “Taking part in surveys is really a way of life for many of our volunteers,” explains Lee Barber. “Even a single record of a nest from your garden can be hugely valuable but there are plenty of ringers and nest recorders that devote a large part of their spring and summer to monitoring work, finding that it benefits their well-being and mental health as much as it helps the birds they study.”

So, what does this mean for 2022? Dave Leech, says, “A lot will depend on the conditions over the coming winter. There will clearly be fewer young birds in the countryside this Christmas but if conditions stay mild, they may survive well, particularly as there will be fewer competitors to share their limited resources with. That could really help to reduce the impact of a 2021 breeding season to forget; whatever happens, the one thing we can absolutely guarantee is that our amazing BTO volunteers will be there to find out.”   

Each spring and summer, thousands of volunteers from all walks of life take part in British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) surveys. The aim of their amazing efforts is to update our knowledge of the numbers of birds breeding in the British and Irish countryside, but some volunteers go even further than this, helping BTO to understand why those numbers are either increasing or decreasing. This group includes our nest recorders, who monitor breeding success, and bird ringers, who collect information on the average length of time that individuals survive.

For the full report, please visit here.

Contact Details
Paul Stancliffe
 (BTO Media Manager)
Mobile: 07585 440910
Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

Mike Toms (Head of Communications)
Mobile 07850 500791
Email: press [at] bto.org (subject: News%20release%20enquiry)

Images are available for use alongside this News Release. These can be downloaded from this link for which you will need to enter the password  CESNRS202161 alternatively, please contact press [at] bto.org quoting reference 2021-61

Notes for editors

The Constant Effort Sites (CES) scheme
 is the first national standardised ringing programme within the BTO Ringing Scheme and has been running since 1983.  Ringers operate the same nets in the same locations over the same time period at regular intervals through the breeding season at over 140 sites throughout Britain and Ireland.
The Scheme provides valuable trend information on abundance of adults and juveniles, productivity and also adult survival rates for 24 species of common songbird.

The Nest Record Scheme gathers vital information on the breeding success of Britain's birds by asking volunteers to find and follow the progress of individual birds' nests.
Each year, hundreds of volunteers submit observations of nests they have monitored to the Nest Record Scheme. Their data are used to assess the impacts that changes in the environment, such as habitat loss and global warming, have on the number of fledglings that birds can rear.
BTO is the UK's leading bird research charity. A growing membership and up to 60,000 volunteer birdwatchers contribute to BTO's surveys, collecting information that underpins conservation action in the UK. BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Thetford, Stirling, Bangor (Wales) and Belfast (Northern Ireland), who analyse and publicise the results of surveys and projects. BTO's work is funded by BTO supporters, government, trusts, industry and conservation organisations. www.bto.org

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