• New Nature Magazine

Waxing Lyrical: The Increase in Migrant Songbirds Across The UK

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

Every year, the RSPB carries out an extensive ‘citizen science’ scheme, counting garden birds across the nation. This year, just under half a million people took part, counting and identifying over eight million birds in total. The event, held at the end of January, shedding light on a number of interesting patterns; showing that the number of robins visiting UK gardens was higher than any time within the last 20 years – a promising sign for these iconic birds. Robins are now number seven in the list of our most common British birds, a few places beneath Blackbirds, another bird that was seen to be on the rise in British gardens and seen in 97% of them.

However, it was not all good news for our local birds; blue tits, great tits and coal tits all declined from last years’ figures, by an average of 11.6% and probably due to wet weather limiting hatchling success in 2016.

A more unusual development was the explosion in waxwing sightings. Waxwings are small, pretty songbirds which usually only come over to the UK when food sources in their native Scandinavia fall short of the amount needed to sustain the population. This year, bird watchers recorded around 11 times more sightings in their gardens than in the last couple of years, especially in the east, but also reaching as far west as Wales and Northern Ireland. The reason for the increase in waxwing sightings and, indeed, other migrant visitors could be because of freezing temperatures across Europe, paired with milder temperatures in the UK. Lower temperatures often make it hard for some birds to find food in their breeding grounds, forcing them to search for milder climes, such as the UK. Our gardens provide plentiful food for these immigrants in the form of berries, meaning this increase in the presence of waxwings and fellow migrants happens every 7-8y or so.

Citizen-science projects such as the RSPB ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’ allow on-going tracking of common and rare bird species in the UK, helping discover what might be causing losses of native birds. It also allows people to get involved with nature in a simple and meaningful way. Big Garden Birdwatch is part of a bigger campaign to increase the prevalence of man-made wildlife homes in people’s gardens and outdoor spaces, providing much needed respite for some of the UKs declining populations of wildlife.

For more information about the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch results, visit

​​Photography: James Common

First published March 31st 2017.

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