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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 01:46 GMT
Collared doves' relentless march
Collared doves,  RSPB-images/Chris Knights
Collared doves were seen in 62% of gardens (Image: RSPB-images/Chris Knights)
Collared doves and wood pigeons are five times more common in UK gardens than in 1979, an annual study suggests.

The revelation comes out of the 25th Big Garden Birdwatch survey, which was organised by the RSPB and recorded the sightings of more than 400,000 people.

Collared doves are now seen in 62% of gardens and wood pigeons in 54%.

The house sparrow tops the survey with an average 4.8 birds recorded per garden but its numbers, like those of the starling, are in sharp decline.

"A lot more people put food out in their gardens and collared doves and wood pigeons know where it is. They are very successful birds because they do not have many predators," Richard Bashford, the Big Garden Birdwatch co-ordinator, told BBC News Online.

"They'll nest near us - so they're not shy. They are at the forefront of birds that are able to take advantage of what our gardens provide."

About 80,000 more people took part in this year's event, held over 24-25 January, than in 2003. There were 8.6 million birds recorded and 247,000 gardens surveyed.

Blue tit, RSPB-images/Chris Knights
Blue tit: Numbers are up slightly (RSPB-images/Chris Knights)
Contributors were asked to watch over their home area for just an hour - to give a snapshot of winter populations.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, based at Sandy in Bedfordshire, believes the event is an important indicator of avian and general ecological health in the UK.

Although the house sparrow and the starling continue to top the league table of sightings, the birds are under immense pressure. The blackbird, too, has seen its numbers tumble over the 25 years of the survey.

Whereas 15 starlings were seen per garden in 1979, in 2004 the average had fallen to 4.3, a decline of 71%. The house sparrow, with an average of 4.8 per garden in 2004, is down by 52% on 1979, when an average of 10 birds were seen.

"Their declines are so severe that they are now treated as birds of high conservation concern," said Richard Bashford. "The truth is we don't really know why some of these things are happening and there is a lot of research going on.

House sparrow, Andy Hay/RSPB-images.com
The decline in house sparrows is well noted (Image: Andy Hay/RSPB-images.com)
"House sparrows are producing fewer chicks and so there is less recruitment coming in. We know this but we need to find out why."

The song thrush is down by 34% since the beginning of Big Garden Birdwatch. It is the biggest loser overall. Once seventh, it dropped out of the top 10 in 1987 and is now struggling to stay within the top 20 species, in 19th position.

Those birds doing well include the common tits, with blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits all up in numbers.

The success of collared doves is all the more remarkable given that they were not recorded breeding in the UK until 1955, having spread steadily across from Asia.

Species Average per garden in 2004 Average per garden in 1979 % change
House sparrow 4.8 (1) 10.0 (2) -52.0
Starling 4.3 (2) 15.0 (1) -71.2
Blue tit 2.9 (3) 2.4 (5) 19.7
Blackbird 2.7 (4) 4.0 (3) -31.8
Chaffinch 2.3 (5) 3.0 (4) -24.7
Greenfinch 1.8 (6) 1.0 (8) 84.4
Collared dove 1.8 (7) 0.3 (-) 525.2
Great tit 1.5 (8) 0.9 (9) 65.5
Woodpigeon 1.4 (9) 0.2 (-) 594.7
Robin 1.4 (10) 2.0 (6) -31.8
Source: RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch Survey

Richard Bashford, RSPB
"A lot of conservation action has concentrated on rare birds but we also need to look at common birds"

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