History of Garden BirdWatch

Goldfinch by John Harding

GBW has seen Goldfinch increase its use of gardens

BTO Garden BirdWatch was launched in autumn 1994 in readiness for recording to begin in January 1995. The idea for the project came out of discussions between Chris Mead and Nigel Clark, of the BTO, and Chris Whittles of CJ WildBird Foods.

Earlier attempts to monitor those bird species using gardens, such as the BTO Garden Bird Enquiry, had always encountered the problem of funding the scheme for more than just a couple of years. What was needed was long-term funding. This problem was solved by making what was regarded at the time as a very brave decision - namely to ask participants in the scheme to make an annual contribution to its running costs. Although it was with some trepidation that we first asked our supporters to take part in the project and make a contribution to its costs, such is the generosity of our supporters that we had 5,028 participants by the end of the first year of recording. Since then the project has gone from strength to strength, growing in size and publishing an increasing number of scientific papers, reports and articles.

Changing faces

Over the period during which the project has been running, there has also been growth in the resources and level of technology used to manage the project. Initially, Garden BirdWatch was coordinated on a part-time basis by Derek Toomer, assisted by Tracey Brookes, both of whom were involved in other BTO work. Andrew Cannon took over the role of coordinating the project in 1996 and was soon joined by two part-time assistants, Jacky Prior and Carol Povey. Mike Toms took over from Andrew Cannon in 2001 and the team was joined by a third part-time assistant, Margaret Askew, in 2003. The current team is supported by volunteers who come into the office to help with mailings and in opening the large quantities of post that we receive.

Scientific outputs and special surveys 

It soon became apparent that the Garden BirdWatch dataset was an extremely useful resource, allowing us to examine lots of different questions about why and how birds use gardens. For example, an analysis of the records submitted from different types of garden has revealed that birds respond to habitat features at different spatial scales, using features both within and around the garden (Chamberlain et al. 2004). It also became clear that many Garden BirdWatchers wanted to tell us about some of the other wildlife using their gardens. This prompted us to pilot the recording of other taxa in 2003, with a great deal of success; for example, we highlighted the role that Garden BirdWatch could play in monitoring changes in mammal populations (Toms & Newson 2006). The survey now includes: birds, mammals, butterflies, bumblebees, reptiles, amphibians, hummingbird hawk moth, hornet, stag beetle, cockchafer and - from January 2011 - dragonflies.

Special 'one-off' surveys have been used to find out more about House Sparrows, how eye size can influence the activity of birds, Tawny Owl calling  behaviour and disease (to name but a few). Our Garden BirdWatchers are an amazing resource; by keeping a regular watch on their gardens they are revealing new and important things about gardens and the wildlife that they contain.