SNOW flurries and sub-zero temperatures should create the perfect environment for this weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch, with record numbers expected to flock to gardens in search of food.
The chilly conditions make it difficult for the creatures to find natural food sources, often frozen or blanketed in snow, forcing their hunt closer to people’s homes.
Last year more than 7500 people from Edinburgh and the Lothians spent an hour recording the feathered visitors in their garden or a local park as part of the annual survey for RSPB Scotland.
The results are collated to form a valuable picture of garden bird populations across the country and serve to highlight any worrying trends that could form part of a larger ecological picture.
Louise Smith, of RSPB Scotland, says it is important, not just for the future of birds, but for other species as well.
“Birds are quite a good indicator of the health of the environment as a whole,” she explains.
“When you see a bird population that starts declining over the years, say for example we have done with the starling, there may be underlying reasons for it.
“In nature everything is linked to something else so there may be something more serious that will have a knock-on effect.
“A lot of people take garden birds for granted but they like seeing them on their doorstep. We want to ensure that people can continue to enjoy seeing the birds they have become so used to.
“The survey allows us to get information from such a wide area – there would be no other way we could create such a detailed picture – so it’s a really great piece of social science.
“Once we get the results we can collate them and compare them with information from previous years, looking at the long-term trends to see what species are doing well and which may require some further human help.”
Participants are asked to spend one hour this weekend noting the highest number of each bird species seen in the area at any one time to stop any repeat visitors being duplicated in the figures.
This year schoolchildren and teachers will be doing the same in their school grounds as part of Big Schools’ Birdwatch that is running until February 1.
And as the winter continues to bite, experts believe birds should be easier to attract than ever simply by putting out a variety of nuts, seeds and fat balls to draw them in.
A lot of garden birds have high metabolisms, so need to eat little and often to generate enough energy to survive the freezing nights.
Small-bodied birds such as the wren, coal tit or blue tit, are particularly susceptible, so high-calorie seeds and nuts are great for providing energy during those tough winter nights.
Sunflower seeds and unsalted peanuts are usually popular with greenfinches, house sparrows, nuthatches, and great spotted woodpeckers. Nyjer seeds are a particular favourite of goldfinches and siskins.
Those wanting to be a little more adventurous can make their own bird cake by pouring melted fat (suet or lard) on to a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake.
Last year’s figures show house sparrows were the most common visitor to our gardens, with five or more appearing in an average of 70 per cent of gardens across the boundaries.
Blackbirds were regulars in nine out of ten gardens in the Capital, although in fewer numbers than other familiar faces like blue tits and chaffinches.
Ian Darling, 67, of Balerno, who has taken part in the study for the last five years, recorded blackbirds, blue tits, coal tits, great tits, chaffinches, greenfinches, bullfinches, bramblings, redpolls, wood pigeons and woodpeckers as regular visitors.
The grandad says it was a fun and hands-on way of educating his grandchildren about the various types of garden bird and is looking forward to seeing how they have fared this year.
“I have always had an interest in birds,” he says. “We moved to a new house about five years ago and I thought it would be an interesting project to see what comes into the garden over the years. I have done it ever since.
“I do see some changes year upon year but I suspect most of the short-term changes are from the weather.
“The cold weather, like we have at the moment, means you get more birds coming into the garden.
“Their natural food, that they get from the fields and woodland, is less accessible to them so birds are more than happy to exploit the food that we put out.
“It’s interesting for children or grandchildren to see birds close at hand and see the different species you can get in your garden. It can inspire youngsters to take a lifelong interest in it.”
The chartered surveyor says he has seen big changes to the bird population since his childhood and believes it is a good idea to try to understand why they are taking place.
“Surveys like this encourage our understanding of changes in the natural world and help identify the changes that are taking place,” he explains.
“I remember when I was a child and you got your starlings and your house sparrows, they were everywhere. Now you are quite lucky to see them in your garden, which is strange really.
“A lot of it can be linked to changing agricultural patterns. The decline in starlings is linked to fewer invertebrates in fields and the sparrow’s decline has been linked to the increased efficiencies in our harvest.
“A generation ago there would be more food spilt that they would feed on, but changing practices in the countryside efficiency have had an impact. By recognising these changes we can understand why the environment is what it is today.”