Thursday, 19 June 2014

Holt Blackbirds

It was great to see the Holt blackbird project feature on BBC SpringWatch the other week and to read follow-up pieces in the local and regional media. The project, which is operated by Dave Leech, underlines the tremendous things that volunteers and communities can do for our understanding of wildlife populations. 

Dave, a professional ornithologist and a volunteer bird ringer for the Thetford-based BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), has been fitting special coloured rings to the blackbirds using his parents’ garden in Holt for a number of years. The combination of colours used means that individual birds can be identified without needing to be recaptured. Sightings of the birds, made by the local community, are then used to build up a picture of the local movements and survival of individual birds, providing very valuable information that reveals how the lives of these suburban blackbirds compare with their country cousins. The project has also shown just how many individual blackbirds may use a garden during the course of a day, with 74 different individuals recorded from one garden in Holt.

The use of colour rings in this way is not just restricted to blackbirds. Elsewhere in Norfolk there are many other projects looking at everything from mute swans to woodpigeons and gulls. Being able to identify individual birds in the field delivers much-needed information on survival rates and how these may change over time or vary between different age or sex classes. It can also be used to study behaviour and breeding success.

Judging by the responses being seen on social media and in the press, the Holt blackbird project has captured the imagination of householders living locally and now on the lookout for Dave’s birds. The partnership that has been formed between Dave, the researcher, and the community of observers serves to underline the power of citizen science. Having a community watching for these birds, feeds many more observations into Dave’s dataset, increasing the material available for his analyses and delivering more robust scientific outputs. The project does more than this, however, because it also engages more of us with the natural world and with the efforts being made to understand and to conserve the wildlife with which we share our gardens and our countryside.

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