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Fewer finches visiting NI gardens

Last modified: 26 March 2015

House sparrow (female)

Image: Ray Kennedy

It’s been a record-breaking year in Northern Ireland for the world’s biggest wildlife survey, with more than 22,000 local people taking part this year – 10,000 more than in 2014.

More than half a million people across the UK spent an hour during the weekend of 24 and 25 January watching their garden and recording any feathered friends that made a flying visit.

As part of the Big Garden Birdwatch, thousands of children and young people also took part in Big Schools' Birdwatch in their playgrounds during January and February.

Overall more than eight-and-a-half million birds were spotted during this year’s survey, including almost 150,000 in Northern Ireland.

As in 2014, house sparrows swooped into poll position in NI’s Big Garden Birdwatch after being spotted in 74 per cent of gardens, closely followed by starlings which were recorded in 66 per cent of green spaces.

House sparrows remain amber-listed (of medium conservation concern) in Ireland, so seeing so many in our gardens proves what an important habitat this is.

It was good news too for our blackbirds, which moved up two places from sixth to fourth, and the beloved robin which seems to have bounced back from a difficult 2014 to take seventh place.

However, local results also reveal a drop in the number of some species recorded this year, most notably members of the finch family.

While they still came in third, 11 per cent fewer chaffinches were reported. Their colourful cousin, the goldfinch, dropped two places from fourth to sixth and greenfinches now sit at number 19 after being spotted in just 21 per cent of gardens.

However local nature-lovers should not be unduly concerned as the weather is likely to have played a part in this year’s results.

Despite the recent cold weather birds such as goldfinches, greenfinches and chaffinches may not have been as reliant on food found in our gardens in January because of a decent natural seed supply found in the wider countryside this winter following a good summer.

While alarms bells aren’t ringing about this annual variation in finch numbers, for greenfinches this drop does continue a long term decline across the UK of 53 per cent since 1979, which is likely to be due to disease.

Trichomonosis has reduced the greenfinch population severely in recent years and has been documented in other garden birds, including chaffinch.

Following simple sensible hygiene procedures when feeding in the garden, such as regularly cleaning feeders and tables, helps to stop the spread of the disease.

However it seems local schoolchildren and their teachers are doing a great job giving nature a home in their playgrounds, as the number of finches reported during Big Schools’ Birdwatch 2015 remained similar to last year.

More children in Northern Ireland took part in the survey than ever before, with almost 300 classes made up of 14,000 children taking time out of the classroom to see which birds visit their school grounds.

As in 2014, the blackbird was spotted most often, closely followed by starlings and hooded crows.

During this year’s Big Schools’ Birdwatch we were delighted by the huge response from nursery, primary and secondary schools across Northern Ireland.

All the children taking part had the chance to count the birds in their school grounds, find out about what they saw, and look at some trends using our website resources. It’s wonderful to see the enthusiasm and excitement of those taking part – whether they see a red kite or a blackbird!

Big Garden Birdwatch and Big Schools’ Birdwatch are a part of the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. To find out how you can give nature a home where you live visit

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