Editor's letter (January 22 issue)

We’ve all heard this before: “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies and statistics.”
This quote, which refers to the persuasive power of numbers, sprang to mind when we first heard that a wildlife rehabilitator was casting doubt on the legitimacy of the figures generated by the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch (see our news story on page 3 of this week's issue). This event encourages thousands of volunteers to watch the birds in their garden for an hour and record the maximum number of each species seen at one time.
In a letter to the editor of The Times, Andrew Meads questioned the media’s reliance on the figures without first determining whether they were accurate or not. Mr Meads believes that those taking part in the count are amateurs that can’t tell the difference between young blackbirds and young thrushes, among others.
The RSPB has countered the argument by stating that it doesn’t really matter if a handful of volunteers aren’t particularly skilled at bird identification. The resultant figures, it says, are still useful in showing general trends and flagging up potential problems. Its website goes even further: “Our scientists can then use these patterns in bird numbers to help prioritise our bird conservation work.”
While I can understand the merits of the Big Garden Birdwatch – making us all feel warm and fluffy about bird conservation – I believe Mr Meads is right to point out the failings in the resultant figures. If we can’t be sure of their accuracy, how can we regard them as authoritative?
It begs the question that if the RSPB is so reliant on this information, why don’t they offer training to participants along the same lines as the British Trust for Ornithology’s bird survey techniques course? That, surely, would be a step in the right direction…