|David Brown is a language consultant and journalist, regularly covering stories in Africa, Asia & the Middle East. He has lived in Finland for 10 years.
It’s called the Dawn Chorus...that hour or so before sunrise when the air is thick with bird song. It is at its most prominent in spring as birds mark their territory and began to mate. Or at least, they used to. These days the Dawn Chorus is a shadow of its former winged self.
A lot of research has been conducted into the loss of bird life in the UK, with depressing results. The number of birds in the UK has fallen from 210 million to 166 million since 1966. It is estimated that the UK loses one breeding pair of birds every minute.
The same problem exists in Finland, where once common birds such as the oystercatcher and black-backed gull have disappeared from our coastal areas. There are less thrushes and blackbirds, less of some species of duck, and in northern areas, less ptarmigans and grouse. Outside my window there are a few sparrows and blue tits this morning, but very little else.
Urbanisation is clearly the biggest issue here. Every new suburb built means more roads, and as a result more noise, more pets, more people and more cars. Trees are steadily removed, and those patches of rocks and long grass birds love are slowly replaced with car parking zones and rubbish bins.
While the UK has finally stirred itself into action and started to replace and create bird-nesting areas with some impressive results, Finland has thus far been rather passive. In New Zealand it is hard to miss the explosion of native bird life, the result of a 20-year program of “in-greening”. A cast of thousands of volunteers planted more than a million trees on islands that the state had bought back from farmers, creating large pest-free zones that effectively re-created the environment prior to European settlement. The species planted were those most favoured by particular native birds, with the end result that populations rose rapidly, and in time naturally migrated back to the city itself.
Finland could, and should, take similar action. While most Finnish cities appear full of trees, the range of species is limited, and the patches of forest often too small and too noisy for birds to breed. A project in which the city planted a million native trees on islands and unused land around the city could both boost bird numbers but also make the city considerably more attractive. With so many of Helsinki’s suburbs (Ruoholahti and Punavuori, for instance) devoid of plant life, a process of in-greening would have considerable impact on the look and feel of the city.
Even in a climate such as this, I am baffled that Helsinki’s inner city seems to have been designed as if to remove all greenery from sight. Surely all of Finland’s engineering prowess could create the means to introduce trees around Kamppi or the Central Railway Station?
Without urgent action, the only birds in our skies will be seagulls and sparrows. And while there may be many more pressing needs in these desperate times, as Joni Mitchell predicted 40 years ago, you don’t know what you miss until it’s gone.