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Birds are one of the most visible species groups in urban areas. The level of interest in garden birds is demonstrated by the numbers of people participating in the Garden Birdwatch and Big Garden Birdwatch monitoring schemes. In Measuring Progress: Sustainable development indicators 2010 the Government recognises birds as a key indicator of environmental quality. All wild birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.

Urban habitats provide a home for many bird species. Several species, such as house martins, swifts, swallows and house sparrows, are strongly associated with buildings. But most of our urban birds are common species that have adapted to living in parks, gardens and other greenspaces, including derelict and brownfield land with suitable vegetation, within and around our towns and cities. Certain species, such as feral pigeons, have been so successful in the urban environment that they are now regarded as pests.

Practical considerations

Several species associated with urban areas are breeding earlier and showing greater population density. This is likely to be caused by factors including:

  • Supplementary feeding – very popular in recent years, with an increase in urban dwellers providing food for birds in their gardens, and may have a significant effect on population density (Fernandez-Juricic and Jokimaki, 2001).
  • The urban heat island effect – our towns and cities are normally slightly warmer than the surrounding countryside, causing earlier activity in some invertebrate populations, which in turns leads to earlier food availability for some bird species (Partecke et al., 2004).
  • Street lighting – longer periods of light seem to affect the activity patterns of some species sensitive to day-length, and may be causing earlier onset of breeding (Partecke et al., 2004).

Although some birds will live in urban and peri-urban habitats for their entire life, others use them in a seasonal way, or as part of a larger territory that includes other habitat types. The species living in this way include several red-listed and amber-listed birds. It is important to understand the ecology of these species and how they may be affected by factors such as supplementary feeding.

Urban birds are highly visible and very popular with local residents. Habitat management projects designed to promote urban birds offer an excellent opportunity for community involvement. Specific guidance on habitat management for birds can be found in the British Trust for Ornithology’s brochure Managing Habitat for Birds and Other Wildlife in Urban Green Spaces.

The management advice given in this leaflet is based on the BTO London Bird Project, a major survey of urban birds carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology between 2002 and 2004. The survey recorded 90 species of birds from 301 sites in London. The leaflet contains management advice for:

  • Grassy areas
  • Trees
  • Bushes
  • Climbers
  • Buildings
  • Sports areas, playgrounds and flowerbeds
  • Nest boxes
  • Feeding.

Case studies

Black redstarts in the West Midlands

The black redstart is an uncommon (less than 100 pairs in the UK) amber-listed bird that has adapted to live in urban areas, where it feeds on insects, spiders, worms, berries and seeds. In 2003 there were only around 10 pairs of black redstarts in the West Midlands, and their favoured habitat of derelict and industrial land has been much redeveloped in recent years.

As part of the Birmingham and Black Country Biodiversity Action Plan, a collaborative conservation project run by volunteers was established to assess the number of black redstart breeding sites in the area, and opportunities for green roofs as foraging areas for the black redstart and other species.

The research group included:

The Urban Bird Box Scheme

This project was initially set up to provide nest boxes to help monitor the black redstart population, but has since expanded to include other urban species such as the house sparrow and swift.

Carillion’s Natural Habitats Fund covered the cost of the first year of work. Other organisations supported the project by providing nest box materials and other resources, and some specialist skills. These organisations were:

In the short term, the project resulted in:

  • Placement of more than 75 nest boxes around Birmingham
  • Production of an information leaflet
  • Organisation of work party days at the Birmingham EcoPark
  • Production of a display showing the importance of bird boxes
  • Publication of articles in local press and magazines.

The Birmingham project has played a part (along with work carried out by the London Wildlife Trust in demonstrating that:

  • Using nest boxes may not be the most efficient way of monitoring black redstart populations
  • Green roofs are very important in providing much-needed foraging areas for black redstarts
  • Surveys for this species should be built into the planning process when redeveloping former industrial and brownfield sites.

All population data gathered in the surveys was passed on to EcoRecord, and the outcomes of the Birmingham & Black Country Biodiversity Action Plan are recorded in the Biodiversity Action Reporting System.


Forest Research has developed Habitats and Rare Priority Protected Species (HARPPS), a database-driven decision support system for managing rare and priority species and habitats. This system contains ecological information about several bird species found in urban environments.

Further information

London Wildlife Trust (1999). Black Redstart: an advice note for its conservation in London.

Early, P., Gedge, D., Newton, J. and Wilson, S. (2007). Building Greener. Guidance on the use of green roofs, green walls and complementary features on buildings. CIRIA.

BTO (2005). Managing Habitat for Birds and Other Wildlife in Urban Green Spaces. Thetford: British Trust for Ornithology.

Agate, E. (1998). The Urban Handbook: a practical guide to community environmental work. Doncaster: British Trust for Conservation Volunteers.

Fernandez-Juricic, E. and Jokimaki, J. (2001). A habitat island approach to conserving birds in urban landscapes: case studies from southern and northern Europe. Biodiversity & Conservation 10: 2023-2043.

Partecke, J., Van’t Hof, T. and Gwinner, E. (2004). Differences in the timing of reproduction between urban and forest European blackbirds (Turdus merula): result of phenotypic flexibility or genetic differences. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 271: 1995-2001.

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