It is important to monitor bird populations both in their own right and as indicators of the general health of wildlife habitats. The objectives of the British Trust for Ornithology's Integrated Population Monitoring programme relate to breeding bird populations in Britain and Ireland and involve the estimation of demographic parameters as well as assessment of numbers. Current programmes for monitoring bird numbers cover the majority of British species; it would be feasible to monitor most of the rest. A new Breeding Bird Survey has been developed to provide effective coverage of all regions and all major habitats in Britain through random sampling, allowing for the marked geographical variation in volunteer observer density. The final choice of a random sample stratified by observer density (with some professional support in regions with few volunteer observers) was based on comparison with alternative stratifications, using data from a 2-year pilot study to assess the number of species adequately covered under various alternatives. A method of assessing whether or not targets are being achieved at any time has been developed: it involves looking back through the data at intervals of 1-year, 4-year, 16-year and longer spans. It will be possible to refine this by incorporating environmental and density-dependent effects into predictive models. The method is illustrated here using Common Birds Census data. We discuss associated problems of statistical inference and of taking decisions under uncertainty. The data provide evidence for large declines in some species, particularly in farmland; the value of birds as general indicators of habitat health is clear. The results of monitoring can be used to illuminate possible causes of problems and to guide both practical steps to ameliorate the problems and research aimed at better understanding the causes. Examples of such research are discussed.