Empowering volunteers to deliver the evidence for conservation

16th February 2021

Keith Mindham

The power of birdwatching

Birdwatching, whether it is of the birds in your garden or of those out in the wider countryside, is a popular pastime in the UK, engaging many tens of thousands of people from different walks of life. Over the last 80 years, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has used this interest in birds to deliver the core monitoring and research work that underpins so much of the land management and conservation action being directed towards wild bird populations.

Central to the BTO’s work are the annual surveys carried out by volunteer birdwatchers, visiting randomly allocated sites to record breeding birds through the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey and the Waterways Breeding Bird Survey. These two surveys provide a robust measure of the changes happening in UK bird populations, changes that may reflect shifts in land management practices, habitat loss and a changing climate. Alongside these surveys, many volunteers also carry out monthly counts of wetland birds (waders, ducks, geese and swans) using the UK’s many wetland sites, including those – like The Wash – that are of international importance for their wintering populations. While these data tell us how our bird populations are changing, they also serve to inform decisions about the possible development of fragile sites, such as those that might result from the development of marine renewables.

Photo credit: David Tipling

Understanding why populations change

Other schemes operated by BTO provide information on the demographic processes that drive population growth or lead to decline. Information from some 3,000 volunteer bird ringers, for example, each of whom will have undergone training over many months and years, can tell us whether there have been changes in survival rates and reproductive success over time. Additional information on changes in reproductive success comes from those volunteers who find, visit and record the progress of nesting attempts each breeding season, either in the wider countryside or their own gardens. It is thanks to these efforts that we have the evidence to show that the breeding attempts of many common birds now begin a week to 10 days earlier in the year than they did just a few decades ago, a consequence of climate change.

Black tailed Godwit. Photo credit: Allan Drewitt

Broadening audiences

All of these surveys are only possible because of volunteers, individuals who have an interest in birdwatching and have directed this interest through accessible citizen science projects. Although some of these surveys require a particular level of birdwatching skill, or indeed additional more specialised training (such as that required to become a bird ringer), other citizen science projects operated by BTO are accessible to an even broader audience. BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch survey, for example, involves some 20,000 volunteers, most of whom wouldn’t consider themselves to be birdwatchers. Instead, these are individuals who appreciate the birds and other wildlife using their gardens, and who can recognise common and familiar species. Equally, the huge contribution of the BBC Springwatch audience to BTO’s Gardenwatch survey, revealed the power of citizen science, identifying the resources available to garden wildlife across the UK and the extent of their use.

It is particularly important that citizen science projects should be accessible to people regardless of their age or background. Involving people in active participation increases their engagement with both science and the natural world. In turn, this makes them more likely to support conservation action, recognise the value of scientific evidence and take meaningful steps in their own lives to reduce their impact on the planet. With more of us now living in cities and large urban areas, our connection with the natural world has been reduced. Surveys like BTO Garden BirdWatch and other aspects of the BTO’s urban work, provide valuable opportunities for those with reduced access to nature to get involved and to increase their sense of connection. The data collected from urban landscapes are particularly valuable, especially when viewed against the backdrop of global urbanisation, and provide insight into the impacts of urbanisation and identification of opportunities to design and manage our cities so that they better benefit wildlife.

Photo credit: David Tipling

Partnership equals impact

The partnership between volunteers and the scientists working at BTO underlines the tremendous value in involving citizens in the collection of scientific data. The robust approach, using well-structured and accessible citizen science as a tool, continues to deliver the long-term evidence base needed to support informed decision-making and to alert stakeholders to the changes evident within our bird populations. By harnessing the enthusiasm and passion that people have for birds and the wider natural world, we have been able to inspire action and bring together a broad constituency of individuals and organisations, working together to collect evidence and to test solutions. Given the very real challenges facing our planet, there is every reason to be optimistic about the power of citizen science and the importance of its role in monitoring environmental change and its impacts.

Photo credit: Cathy Ryden

British Trust for Ornithology

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a Registered Charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why their populations are changing. Our vision is of a world where people are inspired by birds and informed by science.