MORE than half a million people are expected to be watching their garden birds this weekend.
The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch takes place over January 25-26.
And the charity says that with many of the UK's most common garden birds and other creatures in steep decline, it needs participation more than ever.
It says the weather plays an important role in the number of birds in gardens each winter and experts are interested to see if this means birds will be scarce or plentiful.
Whatever happens, the results will be compared with those from winters in the past, stretching back to the first Big Garden Birdwatch in 1979.
Any changes alert experts to track the winners and losers in the garden bird world and long-term trends stand out even when year-to-year differences in the weather are taken into account.
And this year, for the first time in over 30 years, participants are being asked to log some of the other wildlife they see in their gardens too.
The RSPB also wants to know whether people ever see deer, squirrels, badgers, hedgehogs, frogs and toads in their gardens.
With the charity’s new 'Giving Nature a Home' campaign meaning even more people than ever before are providing their wild creatures with new habitats, the RSPB will be able to help build an overall picture of how important our gardens are for giving all types of nature a home.
Also new for 2014 is the RSPB’s Live bird counter, making it even easier to take part, said the charity.
It says the counter can be accessed from the RSPB website and doesn't even need to be downloaded - simply take your laptop, tablet or smartphone to the window, enter the birds you see as you see them, while the clock counts down your hour.
Martin Harper, RSPB Conservation Director says: “Winter has felt more like autumn for many of us and this could have a significant impact on the number of birds in our gardens.
“Birds come into gardens for food when they can’t find it in the wider countryside but if insects and berries continue to be available long into winter, numbers visiting gardens may be down. "The Big Garden Birdwatch will be really interesting this year and will be a good indication of just how much the weather affects their behaviour.
“The key thing for the RSPB is that even if you feel you don’t have as many birds in your garden compared to normal, we still desperately need your results. "We will be able to compare results to other mild winter years and compare regional trends, so if you don’t see many birds, we still need to know, it’s really useful information.
"The more people that take part, the greater our understanding of the threats and the solutions will be."
The RSPB starlings hit an all time low in the 2013 Birdwatch with their numbers sinking by a further 16 per cent from 2012.
Numbers of house sparrows, which are of high conservation concern, dropped by 17 per cent in gardens, compared to 2012, whilst numbers of bullfinches and dunnocks were down by 20 per cent and 13 per cent respectively.
The worrying declines mirror the findings of the State of Nature report which was launched last year by 25 UK wildlife groups with the backing of Sir David Attenborough.
The report revealed that 60 per cent of the wildlife species included are in decline, and one in ten of these could be the road to extinction in the UK unless something is done to save them, said the charity.
The data gathered in the Big Garden Birdwatch on the mammal and amphibian species will be shared with conservation partners so they can add it to their own records and will be used to help the RSPB tailor its advice on giving nature a home, so people can help their wild visitors nest, feed and breed successfully.
To take part, people are asked to spend just one hour at any time of the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend noting the highest number of each bird species seen in their gardens or local outside space at anyone time.
They then have three weeks to submit their results to the RSPB, either online at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch or in the post.
Participants don’t have to actually count the other species like hedgehogs and frogs during the birdwatch hour; just tell the RSPB whether they have ever seen them in their gardens, at any time of year.
Miranda Krestovnikoff, RSPB President, says: “It’s easy to take part and great fun; I can't wait to settle down with my children and a cup of tea and we'll eagerly await some of our regular visitors. We're all hoping that our nuthatch and bullfinch pay a visit during our hour.
"The RSPB urgently needs as many people to take part as possible. The more people involved, the more we'll be able to understand which of our wildlife is most under threat and take action."
Schools can also get involved in the Big Schools’ Birdwatch.
Around 75,000 children and teachers take part each year and the charity says it is a brilliant way of helping youngsters connect with nature.
This year’s schools’ birdwatch will take place from 20 January - 14 February and schools can pick any hour within these four weeks to join in.
Find out more at: www.rspb.org.uk/schoolswatch .