Flock of the new

The range of birds found in our gardens has changed - with sparrows on the decline, and coal tits thriving. Are humans the cause?

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Inside all of us lies a latent capacity to care for the wildlife sharing our environment. It has been genetically imprinted since our distant past as hunter-gatherers. It didn't take early mankind long to realise that it made sense to maintain a healthy stock of food to hunt and gather in the vicinity of their caves. The simple logic no doubt still works for the diminishing number of wilderness-dwellers yet to be touched by the global economy.

Inside all of us lies a latent capacity to care for the wildlife sharing our environment. It has been genetically imprinted since our distant past as hunter-gatherers. It didn't take early mankind long to realise that it made sense to maintain a healthy stock of food to hunt and gather in the vicinity of their caves. The simple logic no doubt still works for the diminishing number of wilderness-dwellers yet to be touched by the global economy.

We still display those signs of our inherited traits throughout urbanised Britain. We may depend on supermarkets for our food, but one of the other items likely to be dropped into the trolley is a bag of mixed seeds or peanuts – strictly for the birds.

Many people go even further, leaving garden centres loaded with an array of specialist bird food, seed hoppers and nut baskets, bird tables and nest boxes, plus a selection of trees, shrubs and plants most likely to bring feathered friends flocking. They don't amount to a minority of oddballs, either. The extent of this enthusiasm was revealed last week when the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) announced that 262,000 people took part in their Big Garden Birdwatch in January.

Human urges to encourage and enjoy wildlife may seem like a modern phenomenon, but they've been around for a long time. US travel books declare that Yellowstone in the Rockies became the world's first national park in 1872 – but that's not quite right. Wildlife tours of Sri Lanka take in nature reserves linked to sanctuaries created by royal decree in the 3rd century BC, following the rise of Buddhism.

However, positive mass public interaction with nature in Britain is relatively recent. It certainly wasn't happening in the 1920s and 1930s, when personal survival during a period of widespread social deprivation was the main focus of attention. World war then produced a further era in which people had no food to spare for birds. Then came a transformation.

Harold Macmillan said in 1957: "Most of our people have never had it so good." One symptom of this was that we were becoming unwittingly hooked on wildlife. Television ownership soared after the Coronation, and it just so happened that some of the most influential early programmes were about the natural world – and we couldn't get enough of them.

My earliest knowledge of the source of babies stemmed from a series about Lapland narrated by Per Host that was forever showing reindeer calving. Zoo Quest with David Attenborough had us drooling for rainforests. We yearned to go On Safari with Armand and Michaela Denis, and Under the Red Sea with Hans and Lotte Hass.

What really turned people on to birds was Look with Peter Scott, founder of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust. From the moment the haunting curlew cry led into the introductory music, households nationwide were glued to their screens. When the first series went out in 1955, the RSPB membership was below 10,000. It has since grown to over a million.

The bird-gardening boom followed this interest arousal. It began during the 1962-63 winter's long deep-freeze, which led large numbers of hungry birds to desert the countryside and seek refuge in urban areas. Broadcast alerts about their plight sparked a public response reminiscent of the outpouring for the troops in wartime.

Fatty left-overs from breakfast were suspended from branches and washing-lines. Those of us still spreading beef dripping on our toast kept some to smear inside the husks of coconuts. They were also hung up, along with strings of peanuts. Breadcrumbs were gathered up after meals and scattered over the icebound ground.

It was estimated that at least a million birds were saved as a result – and out of this collective act of kindness a whole way of life and a multimillion -pound industry developed. Now, if you're stuck for what to buy Dad for his birthday, there's always one of those £39.95 feeders, 4ft long and holding 3.5kg of bird food. Add a £13.50 bag of sunflower hearts or hi-energy seed in case he's unsure what to put in it.

For some, the investment has been even greater. In my case, in 1989 I bought a new house by a favourite spot for observing bird migration on the South Tyneside coast. My next four years were spent creating my own woodland paradise.

I've since recorded about 100 bird species there, including a dozen types of warbler, among them a Pallas's warbler, all the way from Siberia, which stayed for four November days. I also recall the day people travelled from as far as Glasgow to see the two bluethroats that dropped in on their way to Scandinavia one May day.

But the thrill has not just involved rarities. Almost five years ago, I came home at daybreak after covering Tony Blair's victory down the road at Sedgefield. It had been an exciting night but I was even more thrilled to find my trees alive with migrant willow warblers, their sweet songs greeting the rising sun.

That's the great thing about bird-gardening – even for those not so well placed as I, as far as migration is concerned. If the habitat, even in town centres, is sufficiently attractive, birds, mammals, insects, whatever, will discover it and take advantage sooner or later. A lot of the time, the species range is routine, then suddenly an oddity appears and it feels like a lottery win.

The recent RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch underlined the dynamic nature of gardens. After statisticians worked on the results, fascinating trends became apparent. Starlings and house sparrows remained the most numerous birds but their garden occupancy was, respectively, 70 per cent and 57 per cent below the level of the first of these surveys in 1979.

Meanwhile, collared doves, unknown in Britain 50 years ago, were in seventh place, and their presence over the 23 years had grown by 500 per cent. Wrens, the population of which crashed in that 1962/63 winter, are now doing well after a succession of mild winters, and they are starting to rise up to the top 15 of urban birds.

Further pattern changes can be expected. The coal tit (at No 13) is an increasing bird-table regular; marsh and long-tailed tits are developing the habit, too, and siskin is another species drawn by feeders packed with peanuts. Linnets and goldfinches, declining on farmland, are finding gardens ideal nesting as well as feeding places. With great-spotted woodpeckers showing signs of joining the crowd, manufacturers have brought out a new product, the "peckerpack". The "nuthatch" is another in the trend.

A nightmare scenario for the future is a Britain with a single coast-to-coast conurbation. I hope it won't happen, but if it did, there'd be at least one silver lining. Many more garden havens for birds.

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