UK garden birds from the past
How has the mix of bird species changed over the years? I remember in the 1970s house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, blue tits and great tits were the most regular visitors to our garden.
Some birds have been great at adapting to change. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the black redstart, a summer migrant, discovered bombed-out buildings were a great home. Some pairs stayed in London all winter.  Today they do less well and are on the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern.
Today escaped parakeets have become a common sight in South-East England and especially London. They have also been spotted in Wales and the Scottish borders too.
The starling was the ultimate urban bird from the past. According to 'The Observer's Book of Birds (1952)', starlings were seen in the heart of London.
Today jackdaws and magpies have adapted to urban life and starlings are on the decline.
Recently goldfinches and woodpeckers have become regulars to our garden. When I was young I would have been amazed to see either of these birds.
Goldfinches were caught from the wild for the pet trade before the 1950s. Many did not survive. Goldfinches were protected by the early 1950s and numbers were increasing.
Birds living near humans (1952)
According to "The Observer's Book of Birds", these species were happy to live alongside humans, so would have been common garden visitors in some part of the UK.
- Chaffinch - thrived near humans, but not in the heart of cities
- Bullfinch - lived in gardens
- House sparrow - was happy in city environments
- Starling - happy in urban environments
- Nuthatch - lived in gardens
- Great tit - generalist
- Coal tit - gardens
- Marsh tit - gardens
- Blue tit - generalilst
- Blackcap - gardens
- Song thrush - gardens
- Blackbird - gardens
- Robin - generalist
- Black redstart - was partial to bombed-out buildings in London (it is a very rare bird today, but still seen in urban environments)
- Hedge sparrow - generalist
- House martin - near buildings
- Wren - gardens
- Green woodpecker - occasional visitor to trees in gardens (not much has changed!)
- Swift - commonly seen in London
In a typical 1960s garden you might have seen:
- Mistle thrush
- Song thrush
- Blue tit
- Great tit
- Hedge sparrow (Dunnock)
- House sparrow
- Coal tit
- Marsh tit
Source: 'Birds are everybody's pets' by Betty Tay, published in the Daily Mirror, 10 November 1962, page 9
What about today?
These birds are thriving today and seen in our gardens.
- Collared dove +743% (UK population (*) 990,000 pairs)
- Great spotted woodpecker +351% (UK population (*) 140,000 pairs)
- Nuthatch +289% (UK population (*) 220,000 pairs)
- Goldfinch +196% (UK population (*) 1.2 million pairs)
- Jackdaw +157% (UK population (*) 1.4 million pairs)
- Woodpigeon +121% (UK population (*) 5.4 million pairs)
- Long-tailed tit +102% (UK population (*) 340,000 pairs)
- Magpie +93% (UK population (*) 600,000 pairs)
- Great tit +71% (UK population (*) 2.5 million pairs)
- Green woodpecker +70% (UK population (*) 52,000 pairs)
- Wren +65% (UK population (*) 8.6 million pairs)
- Robin +51% (UK population (*) 6.7 million pairs)
- Coal tit +24% (UK population (*) 680,000 pairs)
- Blue tit +21% (UK population (*) 3.6 million pairs)
- Jay +10% (UK population (*) 170,000 pairs)
These birds are doing less well. Sparrows and starlings were some of the most adaptable birds from the past. Today they are struggling.
- Starling -82% (UK population (*) 1.8 million pairs)
- Marsh tit -75% (UK population (*) 41,000 pairs)
- House sparrow -70% (UK population (*) 5.3 million pairs)
- Greenfinch - 64% (UK population (*) 1.7 million pairs)
- Swift -58% (UK population (*) 59,000 pairs)
- Mistle thrush -57% (UK population (*) 170,000 pairs)
- Song thrush -49% (UK population (*) 1.2 million pairs)
- Dunnock -33% (UK population (*) 2.3 million pairs)
- House martin -20% (UK population (*) 510,000 pairs)
- Goldcrest -18% (UK population (*) 610,000 pairs)
- Swallow -15% (UK population (*) 860,000 pairs)
- Blackbird -9% (UK population (*) 5.1 million pairs)
Some bird numbers have hardly moved since the 1970s. The Chaffinch population is almost the same as it was in the 1970s. Although this picture hides a recent decline.
(*) Source: Derived from information on the RSPB website
'Wild bird populations in the UK, 1970-2019' published by the Department for the Environment and Rural Affairs, 26 November 2020
 'The Observer's Book of Birds', by S Vere Benson, published by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. (1952), page 88
 'The Observer's Book of Birds', by S Vere Benson, published by Frederick Warne & Co Ltd. (1952), page 30
By Steven Braggs, June 2021