Image credit: Jill Pakenham/BTO

The unusually warm end to 2015 has resulted in fewer birds visiting gardens and quiet bird tables this winter, according to the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) using data from their Garden BirdWatch survey.

However, as soon as the cold snap of January arrived, bird watchers started reporting more wrens, goldcrests and long-tailed tits visiting their gardens. These tiny birds are most vulnerable in the freezing weather and are quick to take advantage of the lifeline provided by garden bird feeders when the weather conditions change.

2015 experienced an unusual start to the winter with the warmest December on record, which meant there were few large influxes of birds into UK gardens.

The warm weather, coupled with plenty of food in the wider countryside, meant there was no need for birds to seek out food and shelter provided in gardens and urban areas. It was only when the cold weather at the beginning of January hit that smaller birds ventured into gardens.

The number of BTO Garden BirdWatch reports of goldcrests, long-tailed tits and wrens increased once frost and chilly temperatures set in. The average weekly reporting rate of long-tailed tits rose by nearly 10% from December to January with smaller but noticeable increases of 4% and 3% for wrens and goldcrests respectively.

It is most likely that up until mid-January these birds were still able to feed on the extraordinary number of insects that were still around in the countryside. But once the weather turned colder this natural source of food would have become harder to find and, therefore, insectivorous birds would have had to turn elsewhere for food.

Clare Simm, from the BTO Garden BirdWatch team, commented, "The reason we can see the effects of changing weather conditions from week to week is thanks to the thousands of people who collect data for us throughout the year. By just counting garden birds for a few minutes a week, BTO Garden BirdWatchers can help us understand how our gardens are used by birds."

The BTO Garden BirdWatch is the only nationwide survey of garden birds to run weekly throughout the year and is the largest year-round survey of garden birds in the world. It provides important information about how birds use gardens and how this changes over time.

Currently approximately 3,000 people take part in the project and it is funded by participants’ contributions. Observations collected by BTO Garden BirdWatchers are analyzed by BTO researchers and published in leading journals.

These results from the BTO Garden BirdWatch highlight the importance of feeding birds during the winter and how this helps with their survival. The BTO hopes to find out using data from the survey whether these small birds will remain in gardens as the weather turns warmer or will they leave again, despite having easy access to food and shelter.

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