Why I'll be tempting all the little birds into my garden today
This may seem like a very normal, dreary, run-of-the-mill Saturday to you and me, but to the wildlife outside our window it's one of the highlights of the year. Yes, the Great British Birdwatch – an annual census organised by the RSPB – takes place again this weekend, providing an opportunity for our feathered friends to stand up and be counted. Or at least to hop around for a few minutes and then fly away before next door's cat gets them.
Taking part in this event allows the RSPB to chart how the wildlife of the British Isles is evolving, changing, adapting or suffering and, more importantly, to ascertain why.
Last year's results were quite shocking. Some of our most common and beloved birds are rapidly declining in numbers.
Think of a typical garden in the UK and five species of birds spring instantly to mind.
The first must surely be the chirpy and cheerful house sparrow. They are so plentiful and friendly that the very name 'sparrow' was a term of endearment in Victorian times. But the house sparrow was far and above the worst hit species in 2013, having inexplicably dropped in numbers by 17% in just one year.
It used to be known as the common sparrow but they are quickly becoming a rarity and no-one knows yet exactly why.
Then, of course, there's the beautiful blackbird who's often the first to rise just before dawn and whose exquisite song serenades us as we get dressed for work or set off for school. I love my blackbird so much I painted a portrait of him (above) and it hangs in my kitchen for when I can't actually see him in the flesh ... err ... I mean feathers! Blackbirds were the second most badly hit species, having declined by 12%.
The acrobatic antics of the bluetit, flitting to and fro from branch to birdfeeder may soon be a thing of the past too, because bluetits were down by 11% on numbers reported on the same weekend in 2012.
A flock of goldfinches is known as a "charm" and the charming sight of their gorgeous red and gold plumage descending in vast numbers from the sky every time they get word of a basket of sunflower seeds is something every bird spotter loves. But in just a year they've dropped by 10%.
And the fifth casualty I hardly dare mention as it's such a sad reflection. The robin red-breast – known as "the gardeners friend" and a bird so easy to tame that they will eat out of your hand after a few hours of gentle coaxing – is suffering too, or so it would seem. Five per cent of robins have disappeared within 12 months. So who is going to pose for all those Christmas cards? And who will keep us company as we dig up spuds or plant those bulbs next season?
But you'll be glad to hear that there are some success stories which have been revealed by the Birdwatch.
Long-tailed tits, those cousins of the bluetit, like tiny white mice with wings, are growing in numbers by an incredible 46%. Coal tits too, despite being one of the most shy of our resident birds, plucked up enough courage to frequent our gardens and were also on the up and up.
The aim of the RSPB event is not just to record and report on which species is where, when and why. The birdwatch has also been created to raise awareness of the importance of putting out food in Winter and the pleasure it can bring, no matter how big or small your own back yard might be.
Even if you don't have a garden, that needn't stop them from coming and you from enjoying the country's birds. A window box, a branch or just a washing line is all it takes to hang a feeder out and for you and them to reap the benefits.
So today and tomorrow during daylight hours, that's where I'll be. In the back yard, pen and paper in hand, hoping for some wonderful rarities alongside my usual daily visitors.
What's on the menu to tempt them? All the crumbled-up Christmas cake and mince pies which I've saved especially for this occasion. Apart from the icing and marzipan, of course. I don't think birds would enjoy marzipan, so I did the decent thing and ate it for them ...