What does it mean to be born as a bird in Switzerland? Curious, I enter the bright visitor centre of the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach. I look in vain for large aviaries full of exotic bird species. That’s because the work of the 120 or so staff and 2,000-plus volunteers takes place out in the field and in the silence – where observation, research, care, education, awareness-raising and mediation take place. I eagerly embark on a voyage of discovery.
I find the open egg of the exhibition fascinating. I’m ringed, and I begin my life as a bird. Freshly hatched, I find myself in a giant nest. With the help of my ring, I listen to birdcalls and learn what the nest of a blackcap, great tit or wagtail looks like – and why some eggs are speckled. Assigning different eggs to the right species of bird is a matter of luck. I discover that the shape of my beak largely dictates what I eat: apparently I love mice and beetles! But now it’s time to get down to the serious business of being a bird: power lines, climate change, windows, mowers, foxes and more – the dangers are many and varied and set me thinking. We birds are equipped with something unique that enables us to take off and look down on the human hustle and bustle from a pleasant distance: our feathers. Shiny, warming, protective – a real marvel. So that I can fly, I also have a special body type, light bones and a high-performance metabolism. At the end of the informative tour, I surrender my ring of recorded personal interests, whereupon I’m amazed to discover that I’m a white stork!
The «Bird Show» consists of exclusive images by documentary maker Marc Tschudin, which take me on amazing flights and provide insights into the habits of bird species found in Switzerland. What I learn is eye-opening, impressive and, at times, funny. «The 40-minute film demonstrates our enthusiasm and passion for this special creature,» says Felix Tobler, the visitor centre’s manager. The next attraction I visit is the «Singphony» mechanical theatre, where I learn why male birds sing and discover the sheer musicality of birdsong. Tobler is also fascinated by the sounds birds make: «I’m now more aware of sounds and birdcalls and use my ears to identify birds more than I used to. It’s opened up a whole new world for me.»
Felix Tobler tells me about the work of the Ornithological Institute, quoting the hoopoe as an example: “This exotic-looking bird eats large insects and likes to breed in hollow trunks on the valley floor of the lower Valais. That’s also where it can find its favourite food: large mole crickets. There came a time, however, when the three-syllable mating call of the hoopoe was heard only rarely. What had happened? Alarmed, we did some research. There was still plenty of food in the valley, but fewer and fewer full-standard fruit trees for nesting, which is why many birds had to move far up the flanks of the valley to breed. The answer was simple: we hung nesting boxes in the valley, which saved the hoopoes from tiring themselves out flying. Now anyone out and about in the Rhone Valley and keeping their ears open has a good chance of hearing the bird’s distinctive ‘hoop-hoop-hoop’ again.”
As many as 78 of the 200 species breeding in Switzerland are under threat. “That says something about the state of the environment and the very basis of our existence,” says the scientist, who’s been caring for our feathered friends at the Ornithological Institute in Switzerland for 22 years. “Often, it’s simply down to lack of knowledge.” That’s why much of what the Ornithological Institute does involves education – including amongst the farming community. He tells of some 60 pairs of lapwing, which are now breeding again in Wauwilermoos in Canton Lucerne, in part because the farmers are now working their fields with the birds in mind and preserving the nests of these ground breeders.
The garden of the Ornithological Institute is a miniature oasis and home to 27 species of bird. I come across dragonflies, ducks, swallows – and rotting wood as well as piles of stones and branches. It’s not particularly neat and tidy, but the information boards tell me that the conditions are ideal for hedgehogs, as well as for insects, lizards, beetles, worms and other creatures that constitute an important food source for many bird species. That’s when it dawns on me that this is true beauty, and how important it is to care for our environment.
My voyage of discovery taught me a lot, and I make my way home listening out for the sounds our feathered friends make.