Sandy’s Garden ... Where have all the songbirds gone?

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Perhaps I am suffering from a bad case of seasonal affective disorder.

And isn’t SAD a wonderful acronym for ‘seasonal affective disorder’ … or perhaps it is no more than an outbreak of midwinter blues, but in recent days I have taken to seeing the glass half empty rather than half full. Recently I fell over the previously-unknown fact that it’s almost exactly four years ago that … to quote the New York Times of 29th January 2014 … “Pete Seeger, the American singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change has died.” And, although I was never a fan of his, the opening lines of an American folk song which he formalised and popularised sprang to mind. “Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing? / Where have all the flowers gone, long time ago?”

Well, I know why my garden is rather short of flowers towards the end of January: but, looking out of my windows at my rather bedraggled and forlorn garden, it occurred to me … not for the first time … that there is a dearth of songbirds in it as well. It’s not only dull; it’s quiet. Greenfinch numbers, for example, have declined by an alarming 60% in the last few years, according to a recent survey; and I can certainly testify that their decline in Polmont must at least equal that, for I have not seen a single greenfinch in several years and not so long ago they were very common around my home. I have read that the probable cause of this population decline is a severe outbreak of a disease called trichomonosis, an unpleasant, sexually-transmitted ailment which can affect people as well as birds.

I can also confirm that the findings of surveys which reveal declining populations of other bird species are reflected in a big drop in their numbers near my home. The once common-as-dirt house sparrow and the once-regarded-as-vermin starling are now only occasional visitors to my garden, with house sparrow numbers dropping nationally by about one-fifth in recent years; and I suspect the local rate of decline may be even greater. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) attributes this fall in the starling population to the loss of traditional, established farming pastures, where intensively farmed land makes it more difficult for birds to find their favourite food – the crane fly larvae that live in undisturbed soil. And the drop in the numbers of house sparrows has been blamed on everything from climate change to cats and air pollution, although there seems to be no agreement about which are the most significant factors.

Here in my garden, once common bullfinches, wrens, coal tits, blue tits, great tits and not-uncommon goldfinches are now virtually unknown, while song thrushes put in only an occasional appearance. This is despite my humble attempts to heed the words of Martin Harper, the Global Conservation Director of the RSPB, who has written: “Gardens make up around 4% of land area in the UK and their role as habitats for our wildlife is clear. They are the places that birds come to for food and shelter when conditions in the countryside are especially tough and together we can all play a part in making them more welcoming and supportive for wildlife.” My garden apparently appeals only to rooks, magpies and pigeons!

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch 2018 comes along at the end of this week on the 27th, 28th and 29th; knowing what’s happening helps us to find out why it’s happening. I probably won’t join in: but if you’d like to report on bird populations in your neighbourhood, contact the RSPB at www.rspb.org.uk and then follow the links through ‘Get involved’.