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What is a breeding bird survey?



This May, on two bright and *very early* mornings, Marc Anderton, senior ecologist at Surrey Wildlife Trust Ecology Services, visited Maple Farm to undertake a breeding bird survey. He was accompanied by ecologists who were there to learn the ropes about what a breeding bird survey entails. Marc very kindly let us join the survey so we could shadow and share what we learnt.


A breeding bird survey is used to monitor the population of the UK’s most common breeding birds. We can use breeding bird surveys to understand the health of an ecosystem as birds are an important indicator. If you break it down, birds require the following to thrive: food (such as nectar-producing flowers, insects, fish, mammals, reptiles), water (rivers, lakes, ponds etc.), shelter (including trees, bushes and shrubs) and nesting sites (including hollows in trees, sheltered areas and vegetation with which to build nests). If an area has a healthy range of birds, you can therefore assume that it is also relatively biodiverse – filled with enough flowers, insects, trees and shrubs to ensure birds survive and breed.


Beyond being a litmus tests for ecological health, birds also loom large in our collective imagination. Across cultures, they form powerful symbols and inspire art, music and folklore. Childhood books include bird mythology, such as the number of magpies bringing either good or bad luck and the wisdom of owls.


The social conditions surrounding bird watching are also important to acknowledge. Birding is recently inspiring political activism, with groups such as FLOCKTOGETHERWORLD and events such as #BlackBirdersWeek helping birding become a more inclusive space while bringing the world’s attention to the specific challenges faced by BAME birders.


How to do a bird survey?

Marc was teaching everyone how to do a breeding bird survey, based on a combination of survey methodologies. We undertook two early-morning spring visits and walked alongside the edges of every field as a group and noted down what we saw and heard.

To record your sightings, each bird has initials. BT is a blue tit, for example, and MN a mandarin duck. See this cheat sheet for access to all of the most common initials. If you think it’s likely that the bird is breeding (because of its call or if you see it come to and from a nest, for example) then you draw a circle around the initials. If the bird is making a contact call, then you underline a single letter. With a breeding bird survey you can also record any mammal sightings, such as deer.


Marc advised us that we should listen for birds within 100m. He advised that some birds have stronger calls than others, such as song thrush which have a very strong call whilst goldcrest have a weaker call.


It’s also a good idea to note down any courtship displays. For wood pigeons, for example, the male courts the female by flying up into the air, clapping his wings before gliding back down with spread wings.


Notable Bird Songs

The chorus of rich bird song in the morning makes the early start worth it. Marc explained that birds call early in the morning because the air is thinner, and their song can travel further (at least one of the theories anyway). If you want to listen to a dawn chorus, the best day to choose is one with fine, clear weather and little wind.


It can be very difficult for the beginner to distinguish between different birds during the dawn chorus, especially in mixed woodland where there might be more than one bird on the same tree. It’s even trickier when you learn that birds have different sets of calls: one for breeding, one for making contact and another as a warning alarm in case of predators. Thankfully the world of birding is accessible (and becoming more so) and it’s very easy to start learning the basic songs for the most common UK birds.


To get started, below are some helpful phrases and tunes to remember three common birdsongs:

  • The great tit’s song sounds like it’s repeating “teacher, teacher, teacher”.

  • Chiffchaffs have a familiar, monotonous call that sounds like they’re going “chiff, chaff, chiff, chaff, chiff, chaff”. This video helps you distinguish between the chiffchaff and great tit.

  • The song of the black cap consists of repeated phrases, with each phrase starting off slowly with a quieter, more scratchy sound changing to clear notes increasing in volume and then tailing off again towards the end. As one ecologist noted during the survey, blackcaps sing like they have something important to say, continually stepping off and on the soapbox when they think of a new point!

You can also remember a bird’s song through folklore. One ecologist recounted a traditional folktale about the wren, a small brown bird commonly referenced in Celtic folklore as the symbol of energy and cunningness. You can read the full story here, but at the tale’s heart is the wren continually outwitting many of the larger, faster birds, such as the eagle, to win contests. These birds make the wren apologise for cheating, so the wren’s song is him saying “sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry” in quick succession because he doesn’t really mean it!

How can I learn more?

We will be blogging about the results of our survey so do follow on to learn as we do, especially about how to improve the habitat for the birds we do find.

In the meantime, the below links are great resources if you want to improve your birding skills:

  • This RSPB page gives a brilliant description and short audio for the most common UK birds

  • This Bird ID app from Nord University is free and has quizzes you can take to test your knowledge

Dawn chorus is beautiful, and it is worth braving the early hours to catch it, especially during bird nesting season (til August). If you’re in the city, this might entail going to your local park and seeing what you can hear/see – even if you just hear a wood pigeon it’s still a very good start!


A huge thank you to the ecologists at Surrey Wildlife Trust Ecology Services who carried out our breeding bird survey and used it as a training exercise for their team. We’re hugely grateful for your help, and for letting us shadow!

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