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Hungary’s Birds and Trees Day: a tradition one hundred years old

Today Hungary celebrates Birds and Trees Day, a special occasion to raise once again awareness for environmental protection and the importance of nature.

Many countries around the world celebrate Bird Day, sometime during the year. In 2006, the United Nations established World Migratory Bird Day to be held on the second weekend of May. In the United States Bird Day is a bit older, being established for the first time in 1894, while in the United Kingdom bird lovers can take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch hold since 1979.

Compared to many contemporary celebrations that became popular only in the second half of the 20th century, including Earth Day, Hungary’s Bird Day has a tradition of more than a hundred years and it is linked to two renowned Hungarian men: Herman Ottó, zoologist, ethnographer, archaeologist and politician; and ornithologist István Chernel.

In particular, Herman Ottó belongs to that category of people that today we’d define as role models. He couldn’t finish his studies so he was an autodidact who loved zoological, speleological, archaeological and ethnographic studies and he was the first person who stated that cavemen lived in Hungary in the past. Today we would probably ask him to speak at a TED talk, motivating the audience to do their very best even when their means do not allow it. But he wouldn’t come. His contemporaries described him as a man who despised those scientists who searched out unknown species just to have their name remembered in the academic world. Indeed he was the author of valuable scientific works and he identified 36 new spider species but he intended his works and experiences to benefit ordinary people.

herman otto birds
Herman Ottó. Source: Hungarian National Archives.

With him, a new chapter for Hungary’s nature conservation began after he founded the National Association for the Protection of Animals in 1882. But the first time he mentioned bird protection was in 1900 during the general assembly of the Association. He also raised the idea to introduce a holiday, Birds and Trees Day to be celebrated in schools throughout the country. Despite the enthusiasm of the newly-created committee, it took 6 more years for the holiday to be created officially. Until then, however, important legislation passed for the protection and conservation of nature: already in 1902, Hungary was taking major steps for nature conservation in today’s sense.

istvan chernel birds
István Chernel. Source: Hungarian National Archives.

To organise the first Bird Day was exactly István Chernel, a friend of Herman Ottó who had founded a similar animal protection association in Kőszeg, western Hungary. Count Albert Apponyi, who was back then the Minister of Religion and Education, approved the idea and suggested that all schools observed this celebration so that children could learn about nature conservation at a very young age. In this regard, there were also guides and handbooks for teachers, including Herman Ottó’s works. Many activities were organised: competitions to write poems, tree planting, collecting seeds, building birdhouses and aviaries. Some children who excelled were given awards in cash or their names were recorded in the schools’ journals.

The outbreak of the First World War interrupted and overshadowed these positive conservation initiatives. It was mentioned again only in 1954, included in a decree for the protection of birds and in 1982 when it was mentioned in the Nature Conservation Act.

After 1989, its celebration revived again, especially in kindergartens and schools. Indeed, in Eastern Hungary, the vast area of grazed grassland and wetlands of the Hortobagy which include huge, man-made fishponds, support today impressive numbers of birds, especially during the autumn when they provide plenty of food and safe resting areas for 40,000-70,000 Common Cranes.

May is a month full of nature conservation days. Let’s not forget to protect the environment for the rest of the year as well.

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