Blue tit Parus caeruleus, perched on broken plant pot with flowering sedum, in garden. Co. Durham.

Coming to a garden near you

Climate change won’t just bring new birds to our gardens, it could make some birds disappear altogether from our countryside.

New garden visitors coming your way

Have you ever thrilled to the 'yaffle' cry of a green woodpecker or admired the neat slate-grey and peach colours of a nuthatch at the bird feeder? Chances are you recognise these familiar sights and sounds if you live in England, Wales or farther south, but less so if you live in northern Scotland or Ireland. This could change by the end of the century.

RSPB and Durham University researchers say European breeding birds will move north by an average of 300 miles (550 kilometres) in response to climate change. Green woodpeckers and nuthatches could become fixtures in northern gardens just as olive trees and Mediterranean herbs become more enticing prospects for gardeners there.

Continental visitors

By the same token, residents of the south of England may be welcoming new garden visitors. The same Climatic Atlas of European Breeding Birds also shows how species from the continent are likely to spread. Serins – small yellow finches; showy hoopoes with their striking crests, pink plumage and striking black-and-white wings, and delicate Scops owls visit Britain only as vagrants. They are expected to begin breeding in southern England by 2075 or so, as Plymouth climes become a little more like Provence.

It all sounds rather exotic, doesn’t it? Indeed, for garden birds, climate change seems to promise mostly additions to our parks and gardens rather than losses. The RSPB and Durham’s climate models looked at how breeding birds’ ranges could shift under a 3 degree Celsius global temperature rise - taking account of the drier summers and wetter winters that would be part of the mix.

Blackbirds, robins, blue tits, greenfinches and the other 'top 10' species on our Big Garden Birdwatch list already tolerate a range of climates across Europe from Spain to Sweden, so a warming of three degrees is unlikely to affect their incidence in the UK much.

Find out more

You can download a summary of the Climatic Atlas on this page or buy the Climatic Atlas.

A turbulent countryside

It’s out in the countryside where the possible shift in birds' distribution has graver consequences. It’s in the high mountains and upland moors where birds like ring ouzels and red grouse live in fine balance with the cool, damp, wind-swept climate. Here, shifts in temperature and rainfall could bite first and hardest. 

The red grouse currently breeds across the English, Welsh and Scottish uplands. Our research shows that the climate of upland England and Wales will no longer prove suitable for them by 2075-2099. They are likely to retreat to the Scottish highlands as their last bastion in the UK. 

Ring ouzels, like small, shy blackbirds with distinctive white crescents across their breasts, breed high on our mountains, above 1000 feet. Currently, ring ouzels breed in uplands across the UK. Much like the red grouse’s story, we forecast that suitable climate for these 'mountain blackbirds' will exist only in Scotland by the end of the century.

A climate winner?

Even where bird species are forecast to benefit greatly from Britain’s changing climate – as with Dartford warblers - their ability to flourish depends completely upon a healthy countryside and suitable habitat.

Sometimes conservationists call the Dartford warbler one of the UK’s ‘climate winners’, because a warmer British summer and milder winter should encourage its spread here. Whether it ‘wins’ and flourishes, though, is up to us. Indeed, the story of the ‘Dartie’ illuminates the challenge for nature conservation in a changing climate, in a broader sense.

Dartford warblers are flagship birds of our heathland restoration projects, signs of success where we are bringing native heathlands back to life in Dorset and Bedfordshire, at our Lodge nature reserve.

Without such projects, Dartford warblers wouldn’t have enough places to nest in an English countryside now so heavily modified by farming, industry and housing development. We are creating more breeding places for these delightful birds, and ‘stepping stones’ of heathland to help them move across the landscape as our climate becomes more suitable for them.

Our responsibility for protecting this species takes on a European significance as the Dartford warbler's range edges northwards. Climate change will cause its current habitat in Spain and Portugal to become unsuitable and the UK will probably come to hold a larger proportion of Europe’s Dartford warblers. 

Dartford warbler backlit with prey, Arne RSPB reserve, Dorset

How you can help

Sunset over heathland at RSPB Arne nature reserve

We're working to give nature a home. We protect threatened wildlife and special places so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again.