Suomen Luonto
English summaries 3/2003

Anxiety over house sparrow losses
By Juha Kauppinen
Pages 4-11

Populations of one of our most commonly known birds, the house sparrow, are experiencing a serious decline. Over the last 26 years, the population as a whole has fallen by as much as 63 %. Current estimates place total house sparrow numbers at 250,000 to 300,000 pairs. Ministry of the Environment's Counsellor of the Environment Pertti Rassi and the senior curator of the University of Helsinki's Finnish Museum of Natural History, Risto A.Väisänen, an ornithologist, report that the decline in the house sparrow population has been so sharp that factors cannot be suspected which are ordinarily associated with population fluctuations. Rassi and Väisänen believe that the cause is either a parasite or a disease of some sorts.

The decline of the house sparrow is a phenomenon presently characterising the whole of western Europe. For instance, there are 95 % fewer sparrows in London compared to the late 1980s. Ornithologists are extremely concerned about this population crash, particularly since the house sparrow is a species that is everywhere closely associated with mankind. "The fact that one of the bird world's most successful species can suddenly embark on so drastic a decline is a clear indication that something is radically wrong with our environment," declares Rassi.

World renowned house sparrow researcher Derek Summers-Smith would like to see a definitive study on the species launched immediately. "Because most of us live in towns or cities we should now set out to discover why it is specifically the house sparrow that is becoming rare." In Britain steps have already been taken in this direction, with substantial sums of money being set aside for house sparrow research. We can thus shortly expect to have the first clues as to what is causing our chirpy little friend to decline so alarmingly.

Thousands of tawny owls in Finland
By Jonna Karhunen
Pages 16-17

When out on a nocturnal owl excursion in southern Finland in the late winter period, one is almost certain to hear the call of the tawny owl. Along a well chosen path in suitable terrain in a year when the owls are plentiful a dozen or so individuals may well be heard hooting. It may thus come as a surprise to learn that the tawny owl did not become established in Finland until the late 19th century. Nowadays the species nests in suitable habitats in southern and central Finland, with an estimated total breeding population of around 2,000 pairs.

The tawny owl is a true bird of the night, spending the light part of the day sitting unnoticed on some suitable branch. In the dusk it flies off to hunt. Both males and females are skilful hunters, the male feeding the female during the early stages of the breeding season. The more voles that are available, the more eggs the owls lay. In sparse vole years most tawny owls do not bother to breed at all.

Tawny owls have a broad diet. To judge by remains of prey collected from nests, they feed their young on large numbers of short-tailed voles, frogs and birds. But remnants of mice, ground voles, shrews, bank voles and rats have also been discovered among the accumulated waste. Periodically moles, bats, weasels, red squirrels, crayfish and even hedgehogs are also preyed on. Based on weight, the most important prey animals appear to be the ground vole, common frog and birds the size of thrushes and fieldfares.

Spring is on the way
By Markku Lappalainen
Pages 18-23

Meteorologists define spring as the season during which the mean daily temperature rises to above zero but remains below ten degrees Celsius. The start of this "thermic spring" spells the end for snow and ice. Finland's snow cover shrinks quickly, its depth falling by up to 15 cm a day.

The old Finnish adage "March opens up the ground" is rooted in fact. Long term observations show that the ground begins to appear in Finland in March, starting at the country's south-western extremity. After that it normally takes a couple of months for the snow to disappear over the entire country, although an early spring may be superseded by a 'new' winter of up to several weeks' duration. Just as likely is a prolonged, unbroken winter lasting right into April. This occurs when the high pressure and stiff frosts characterising the continental climate remain prevalent in Fennoscandia so that the Atlantic maritime weather is not able to thrust moist and warm areas of low pressure into our cold country.

Signs of spring in March include sky larks and snow buntings, bickering gulls, and hooded crows carrying twigs to their nests. Coltsfoots appear along roadsides and the herb-rich forests of the south-west produce the first blue-flowering hepaticas.

A vote for nature
By Ritva Kupari
Pages 26-29

Finland will elect a new parliament on 16.03.2003. The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation's main message to the new parliament is for a start to be made on the revision of ecological taxation. This would lighten the taxation of work and services while increasing levies on the use of natural resources and environmental pollution.

Our magazine posed four topical questions to the existing political party chairpersons to elucidate their party's stand on some crucial environmental issues. Question 1 concerned the Vuotos reservoir. Finland?s high court has now refused to grant permission for constructing this reservoir. Should Parliament override the court's decision and bring in a special Act allowing the reservoir plan to go ahead? Question 2 concerned ecological taxation revision. Do you wish to promote this and, if so, using what measures? Question 3 was connected with the protection of the flying squirrel. This animal is on the EU's list of endangered species. Does the preservation of the flying squirrel place an unreasonable burden on this country and should we stop trying to conserve the species? Question 4 was about the forests of southern Finland, of which only one percent have been protected. Should there be an increase in the amount of protected forestland and in the funds set aside for this purpose and, if so, then by what amount?

All the parties answered "No" to the first question. Question 2 proved more difficult because this close to a general election the parties had adopted the classic 'must reduce taxation' line. Question 3 divided the parties: the flying squirrel should be protected but not at the expense of the economy. In other words, they felt that a reasonably large population should be preserved but "we should not go to extremes". The Green Alliance and Left Alliance both supported flying squirrel conservation, but the Swedish People's Party did not. In Question 4 the National Coalition, SDP, Swedish Party, Left Alliance, and Centre Party were in the main satisfied with the Metso committee's proposals and considered they served the purpose. Only the Green Alliance felt strongly that these proposals were inadequate and asked for a five percent protection level.

Enchanted by Peruvian wildlife
By Markku Lappalainen
Pages 42-44

Finland's ambassador to Peru in 1998-2002 was Mikko Pyhälä. His achievements have received recognition in a unique way. A new species of orchid, Maxillaria pyhalae, has been named after him. The plant was discovered in a cloud forest in southern Peru in 1999.

Pyhälä is a sociologist specialising in matters appertaining to the developing countries. He is interested in culture, nature and especially birds. Together with Professor Jukka Salo, Pyhälä wrote the book "Amazonia", which was awarded a Tieto-Finlandia prize in 1991.

The Ambassador feels that Finland's development aid ought to be directed to an increasing extent at small, local projects in which biodiversity and sustainable development frequently feature. This kind of project may cost as little as 2000-3000 euros, yet it can have a high impact, if properly targeted. Aid can also be given for the production of various kinds of books, for example.

Support for local inhabitants is essential in all projects. It is achieved by discussing matters with them and telling them about the kind of benefit they can derive from plans. Once people realise this, support is swiftly received - and the project may succeed.

Tourism is a developing business in Peru. Only 850,000 tourists a year currently visit the country. However, Peru can offer a wealth of habitats in the Andes, in the Amazonian rainforest, and along the Pacific coast, in addition to fascinating insights into the indigenous Indian culture, including the magnificent buildings of Machu Picchu. Tourism also has adverse effects which can be minimised by good planning and judicious targeting. Successful tourism has been established in Costa Rica, where it goes hand in hand with conservation interests.

Pyhälä is optimistic. Environmental awareness has been constantly increasing in Peru. Neither is the country one of the poorest of developing nations, the average income per capita reaching around 2,500 euros a year. Protecting forests is now the biggest problem: with the reduction in fish stocks business interests have shifted from fishing to forestry. However, Pyhälä has faith in the future, considering that Peru possesses some of the finest ecosystems in the world.

The land that was born from a goldeneye's egg
By Antti Halkka
Page 67

Birds love Finland in the summer, two-third's of Europe's goldeneyes, almost half of the red-breasted mergansers and goosanders, and 20% of Europe's teals, wigeons, tufted ducks and eiders, producing young here. Waders pour into our land of lake shores, mires, Baltic shores and archipelagos; in summer we can find one third of the European continent's curlews, common sandpipers and greenshanks, 40% of its wood sandpipers, half of its spotted redshanks, and as much as 90% of Europe's broad-billed sandpipers. More abundant in Finland than anywhere else in Europe are the black-backed gull, little gull and common gull. Ten percent of the populations of these build their nests in Finland.

Twenty percent of Europe's capercaillies, Siberian jays and three-toed woodpeckers live in Finland, while over 30 % of red-flanked bluetails and parrot crossbills occur here.

The birds reveal Finland's biogeographical character. Here there are 200,000 lakes, a long Baltic coastline, and hundreds of thousands of islands, islets and stony shallows. Thirty percent of the land area consists of various types of peatlands, most of the remainder being covered by coniferous forests. In summer the weather is suitably warm, offering an abundance of insects and plants.

Because a large proportion of Europe's total nesting population of many birds lives here, we also have a responsibility towards protecting these species. One reason for the recent decision not to inundate the extensive wetlands of the long disputed Vuotos reservoir area was protection of the area?s birdlife. This area features large numbers of nesting broad-billed sandpipers, jack snipes, ruffs, bean geese, cranes, whooper swans and smews. Attempts at drowning these valuable peatlands in the proposed reservoir would undoubtedly have led to the authorities being accused of contravening the EU's bird directive. According to Finland's national epoch, The Kalevala, the entire world was born from the egg of a goldeneye, so goldeneyes have for good reason chosen this land for nesting!

Teksti: Leigh Plester