Ask birders over a particular age what sparked their interest in birding and they’ll often say that it all began with ‘birdnesting’ or ‘egging’ – collecting wild birds’ eggs. As late as the mid-1950s there was a thriving playground economy with eggs, particularly those of scarce birds, being bought and sold for good money. It’s not surprising that boys (and it was almost always boys) became very adept at finding the nests of many species. But, thankfully the Wild Birds Protection Act 1954 made it illegal to collect eggs and, despite a few hardcore egg thieves remaining, the practice has largely disappeared and has become very much a taboo amongst birders.
However, the demise of ‘nesting’ has also led to the loss of those skills once employed to find nests – skills that, if people could be persuaded to re-discover them, and if they adhere to the Code of Conduct, could be of huge benefit to bird conservation.
Explaining why numbers of some species of birds are crashing can be difficult. More often than not a complex suite of factors are responsible. It can be like a jigsaw puzzle where you need all the pieces to be able to get the complete picture – and that’s where ‘nest recording’ is so vitally important.
Volunteers who monitor nests and submit their data to the BTO through the Nest Recording Scheme (NRS) help build up a picture of nest productivity i.e. how successful each species’ nesting attempts are in terms of numbers of eggs laid and chicks fledged. Over the years, patterns appear which can help explain whether breeding productivity is one of the reasons for the demise, or indeed the success, of a species. If breeding productivity doesn’t appear to be a factor then it’s clear that there are other issues involved.
But, the NRS needs more volunteers and, with the breeding season just beginning, why not strike while the iron’s hot and get involved?
Reading the BTO’s A Field Guide to Monitoring Nests is a great introduction to the lost art of finding birds’ nests and how to monitor them safely. As you would expect, it has comprehensive species accounts – over 146 in total – each one a wealth of information about the nesting biology of each species: nest structure; when, where and how many eggs are laid; egg colour; number of broods etc.
There are also a whole host of tips about how to go about finding birds’ nests. There are techniques for those who may prefer the patient or proactive approach. We’re guided through the NRS methodology and what information should be recorded. But, of course, there is the caution that the welfare of birds should always come first and that BTO nest recording is based on the Code of Conduct, which is a protocol designed to ensure that monitoring a nest does not influence its outcome. There is an introductory guide to wildlife legislation which includes a list of Schedule 1 species whose nests much not be approached without a license. And we’re also asked that nests of other species should never be approached or searched for unless the intention is to submit the information collected to the NRS.
For more information please visit the BTO’s NRS pages. And, best of all, if you join the BTO now and pay by direct debit you can have the option of receiving a free copy of A Field Guide to Monitoring Birds (worth £24.99).
You can become a Nest Recorder by submitting the record of just one nest – and that record could be the blue tits nesting in your garden nestbox. Every record is valuable.