Garden wildlife expert, Sean McMenemy of Ark Wildlife, gives tips on how to take part in the Birdwatch and the benefits it can bring for the elderly.

Each year thousands of people across the UK participate in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch; an initiative where the public is invited to spend one hour watching and making note of which birds appear in their garden, outside their window, or in their local park, and then send their results to the RSPB. These results are used to create an updated set of data that reveals insight into bird numbers across the UK.

This year’s Birdwatch is coming up on January 29th-31st, and it’s a perfect chance to make the most of a fun yet simple activity. For me, birdwatching is part of my everyday routine, and I know first-hand how much joy and calm it can bring to those who engage in it. My love for wildlife has been present since childhood. 

I worked as a landscape gardener during the 1980s and then began getting involved in sustainability projects involving wildlife habitats to support species such as birds, bats, bees and hedgehogs. I’ve built up my wildlife knowledge over the years, fuelled by my passion for the outdoors, and I’m always keen to encourage others to engage in it too.

With restrictions continuing for the foreseeable future, it is getting trickier to find new ways to stay upbeat during lockdown. Therefore, the Big Garden Birdwatch is a fantastic opportunity – engaging with nature through a structured activity, as well as the sensory stimulation of sights and sounds, can help maintain physical and mental wellbeing, particularly for those living with dementia. Also, with almost half a million people getting involved in the Birdwatch every year, we can feel connected to others through the shared experience of contributing to a nationwide project.

What are the benefits of getting involved in the Big Garden Birdwatch?

Throughout my time as a wildlife expert, I have been spreading the word about the benefits of exploring and interacting with nature, particularly for the older generations through my visits to care homes.

An activity like birdwatching could even inspire a new found interest in wildlife. Whether this entails stepping outside to watch the birds, or observing them through a window, the act of appreciating surrounding wildlife is both a learning opportunity and a chance to have fun, and step away from your usual daily tasks.

Remaining positive and keeping the mind stimulated whilst stuck inside is difficult, but there’s always room for learning more even in someone’s later years. Gazing out the window, or exploring the garden is a great way to engage the mind. Counting, recording, drawing, observing and identifying visiting birds are all valuable learning opportunities that are fun and engaging.

Birds are very present in all our lives. Even those who say they ‘know nothing’ when asked, are surprised when questioned about common birds. Once minds are opened, people can often identify a dozen or more birds they didn’t realise they knew.

Spending time watching or walking in nature has been shown to benefit both mind and body, and this is as true for young people as it is adults. Sitting quietly in fresh air or walking in open spaces calms the mind and body, it balances our physiology and promotes production of positive hormones. Slowing to the pace of nature and it’s natural rhythms is greatly beneficial and contrasts starkly with our fast paced digital existences with all its distractions. Time spent in nature is never wasted.

How can you take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch?

Taking part is simple – watch the birds in your garden, and only count the birds that land, not those that fly over. Then, go onto the RSPB Birdwatch website and submit the highest number of each bird species you observed at any one time. 

Here are some of my top tips to keep in mind that will make the Big Garden Birdwatch as fun and enriching as possible:

Print out some visual prompts

Having images to hand of what birds to look out for (which can be found on an RSPB resource) will help you feel confident in understanding which creatures you can spot. This could be particularly helpful for those living with dementia as the colourful pictures may help recall memories. 

Remain patient 

When birdwatching, birds may not necessarily appear straight away so I find that making the most of all the beautiful sights and sounds that can be experienced in nature makes the experience so much more valuable and relaxing. Can you spot any other animals? Can you see any plants that you’ve never noticed before? 

Use your ears just as much as your eyes

The sound of birds calling or singing can be a powerful trigger for memory recall, and can also help relieve stress. If looking through a window from indoors makes it difficult to hear sounds, you could even try playing bird songs from a phone or laptop to elevate the experience. 

Use sunflower seeds to attract more birds

Spreading sunflower seeds for birds (shells removed) out onto your outdoor space can have a big impact on the number and diversity of birds that are attracted to the area. So if there seems to be a lack of birds around, this tip could create a more exciting birdwatch experience! 

You can be flexible with timing

Although the official event asks the public to watch for one hour on a specific weekend, do not be afraid to do whatever suits you. Some may be excited to take part straight away, and some others may take some time to build enthusiasm – both of these attitudes are valid.