Birdwatch is taking off

8th February 2013 at 00:00
The annual conservation event for schools is under way - and pupils are flocking to get involved. Julia Horton reports

We can't all go out together to look for them, because they would take heart attacks!" His choice of words may be a little unorthodox, but Johnny Blairford knows a lot about birds, and he understands that the sudden appearance of 30-odd noisy 9-year-olds would frighten away most species.

"Robins are very territorial - they want to scare other birds. Say I wanted this table to myself, I'd say 'go away' to anyone else - and if they didn't, it might lead to a fight," he says later in a bid to explain why the red-breasted garden regulars are usually seen alone rather than in flocks.

Johnny, also 9, is the first pupil in Scotland to take the initiative to ask the RSPB to visit his school in the run-up to the charity's annual Big Schools Birdwatch.

But as RSPB lifelong learning manager Judy Paul leads a discussion on identifying and protecting birds, it turns out that Johnny is not as rare a breed as you might think. Hands shoot up constantly around the room as the P5s at Duddingston Primary in Edinburgh rush to answer Judy's questions. She engages the children using a collection of toy birds which, when squeezed, emit the call of the appropriate species.

Pupils are quick to offer suggestions and develop ideas, debating the similarities and differences between the feet of blackbirds and house sparrows and what they reveal about the birds' feeding habits.

Johnny says his fascination with birds began a couple of years ago when he saw a TV documentary about how they fly. Others mention programmes like the latest David Attenborough series, Africa.

Laughter ripples around the room as Judy invites two volunteers to wear special caps - dull for the girl and shiny for the boy - to illustrate how bluetits recognise potential mates.

"Doesn't he look sparkly?" she says. "We can't see the difference between males or females when we look at bluetits, but they can see ultraviolet light. So this is what the girl sees, and she thinks, 'He looks fantastic!'

"The brighter yellow his tummy is, the more caterpillars he has eaten, so she knows he must be a good hunter, which she needs to support her when she's on the nest, so she chooses him."

Armed with this extra knowledge and some binoculars, the pupils head out into the school grounds with Judy to see which birds are around. "Wow, I think we have a thrush," she says, pointing towards some nearby trees. "Yes, it must be a thrush because of its really long beak."

It's a species which, as she has already explained, the RSPB is worried about, because populations have been falling. Schools which submit their findings to the yearly birdcount play a key role in helping the charity to spot and understand concerning trends.

The recent bad weather has been attracting winter migrants too, and pupils count 13 redwings during their watch.

Louise Lock, 9, enjoys taking part. She says: "The best bit is coming outside and seeing all the different birds. It's amazing that we saw redwings and thrushes."

Back indoors, almost every pupil wants to be chosen to present their newly acquired knowledge to the rest of the school at two assemblies taking place before lunchtime.

Johnny introduces half a dozen of his classmates as they replicate the lesson which Judy taught them earlier this morning.

Watching them in action, P5 teacher Kelly Inch says: "They have really listened and taken everything on board. To see them passing on what they have learned so quickly is incredible.

"As a teacher, I think I've learned a lot too. It's great to have a wildlife garden here, but you need to know about the wildlife so you can use it well."

Judy says such enthusiasm is common, although until now sessions have only ever been booked by teachers or school secretaries.

"I was so impressed when Johnny rang - we've never had a pupil do that before. Children are generally very interested, although the first question I had at one school the other day was, 'So, what's so exciting about birds then?'

"I like that challenge, though. It means I have to make it exciting and by the end of the day that pupil was excited too.

"Children are the best advocates for wildlife and the environment. If we can get even one or two of them interested at this stage, when they are becoming more independent, then conservation has a future."

Pupils like Johnny are cause for real hope. As classrooms empty for the weekend, he grins: "The best part of today was educating other pupils and trying to help them learn more about the birds and what we can do."


The RSPB Big Schools Birdwatch began in 2002 to encourage pupils and teachers to find out more about the species in their school grounds - and help to support work to protect them.

The annual event, aimed at primaries, ran from 21 January to 1 February this year.

Participating schools receive information packs including ID cards and counting charts.

Classes must spend one hour during the fortnight noting the highest number of each species at any one time outside their school.

Last year, a record 390 schools across Scotland took part. In 2010, the Little Schools Birdwatch was launched for nurseries, with the Really Big Schools Birdwatch set up in 2011 for early secondary school children.

The events coincide with the UK-wide Big Garden Birdwatch for the wider public, held on the last weekend in January.

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