Old Customs as Lived Traditions and Expression of Attachment to Nature
By Dipl. Ing. Dr. Ludwig Wiener
Bird catching in Central Europe at the beginning of the 21st century? Incomprehensible for many people, since today bird catching is connected with (bad) customs of passed times or with catching in masses like in South Europe as expression of bird love that is appreciated on the menus. Nevertheless the Salzkammergut has preserved a tradition which has evolved independently and has acquired - always adapting to the respective time - a fix place in the rich traditions calendar of the Salzkammergut.
This custom goes back to oldest times and is first mentioned in the Austrian part of the Salzkammergut in an Instruction of Emperor Rudolf II in December 20th, 1579, where he didn’t only declare bird catching to be legal for the ordinary people, but he also allowed it on imperial properties. This was particularly important for the Salzkammergut, because nearly the whole region was under direct imperial administration. The archbishop of Salzburg, Matthäus Lang, similarly arranged bird catching already in 1526. Numerous further edicts, decrees, patents or confirmations followed in the coming decades. The permanent references to the right of bird catching, especially for the ordinary country people, caused that bird catching was called the “hunt of the ordinary citizen”.
There is absolutely no indication from the Salzkammergut that bird catching was exercised for hunting purposes (in the sense of killing). Oldest descriptions of bird catching in the Salzkammergut prove that there it was exercised only for purposes of owning birds in-house and selling in-house birds. This custom was also taken by people of the Salzkammergut that resettled to other regions, where it partly maintained the same way as in this region (e.g. in the Forest Carpathians in today’s Ukraine).
With the arising tourism in the middle of the 19th century in the Salzkammergut the importance of in-house bird trading increased. Therefore special selling exhibitions have been organized in the course of time, which have been accompanied by big processions and accompanying program (dancing shows, flower decorations and so on). These bird exhibitions have been documented since the year 1862 in Ebensee, 1864 in Gmunden and 1910 in Bad Ischl. Before that the bird friends were not organized and traded their birds without such big set up events.
The exhibitions were originally selling exhibitions; actually they were bird auctions where the beauty was more price-determining than the voice of the birds. The bird friends came from the whole region: the Aussee region, the inner Salzkammergut, the regions of Aber- and Mondsee and from the other side of the Traunsee, the region of Gmunden. The obtained proceeds for the birds, however, was not kept by the individual bird friend, but was paid into a community cash desk (so-called “Bruderlade”), from which money was taken for several events. For example the “Postal Christmas Tree” in Ebensee was financed this way; this is a Christmas celebration for orphans in the “Postwirt” (name of the postal inn). The birds were sold until about the middle of the 30’s. From this time on the exhibition remained as social event, but birds are not sold any more. As in these times also today the blaze of colour, the health and the perfect state of care of the bird count to the decisive characteristics.
Today the 550 presently active bird friends are organized in 35 societies, which annually organize a bird exhibition o the Sunday before Katharina. The bird exhibitions are still today, together with its traditional universe, a socially important part of the customs. All societies are joined together to the “Association of the Bird Friends Salzkammergut”, which also organizes an exhibition annually on the first Sunday in Advent, where only the most beautiful birds of each society are permitted.
Bullfinch (“Gimpel”), siskin (“Zeisig”), goldfinch (“Stieglitz”) and crossbill (“Kreuzschnabel”) are the bird types that have made the blood of the citizens of the Salzkammergut surge through their veins. The king among them, however, is the crossbill, which is also called the “parrot of the Alps”, because of his climbing skills on conifers. “Why, I ask myself today, brood crossbills their young birds in the middle of the winter? Doesn’t that mean for such an animal to provoke the forces? Nevertheless they do so and withstand storms and cold nights. For this reason I think that it is absolutely no playing to compete in ruse and cleverness with such a good singer.” That is what the famous author Prof. Franz Kain writes in his “Bird Story”. He hits the motivation of bird catching in the Salzkammergut on the point. Not mass catching with large nets is the target, but the experience in nature, the matching of human skills with those of the birds, to desire the individual bird and to obtain it. For this reason it is necessary to learn permanently, to think oneself into the world of the birds as being one of them. So you have your only chance to really reach your target. Birds are caught by traps with which only one bird can be caught respectively. The type of traps admittedly changed according to the technical feasibilities. In former times so-called “Schlaghäuschen”, “Leimruten” or “Kloben” were used, whereas today only so-called “Netzkloben” are in use. “Netzkloben” are little traps, where the bird is not kept on the legs any more, but is surrounded by a net with a size of 20 x 30 cm, when the bird sits on the perch. The close-meshed net prevents the bird to get caught or to hook in with its feathers. The net is not kept together tightly, but is crossed above so that the net closes when the bird tries to free instead of opening. If a bird is not fully inside the net it can free itself easily without being hurt. Through this type of trap the goal to catch a bird without hurting it is taken into account in highest extent. For the trapping of goldfinches a ground net is used because of its special behaviour (it likes to fly to meadows), which only closes when the bird friend triggers it. Also in this case the net (size about 1 x 1 m) is pulled over the bird. This is the only way to realize selective catching, which is desired by bird friends and requested by the legislator. According to the special approval concerning the conservation law only four birds are allowed to be caught by each bird friend between September 15th and November 30th.
Together with the alluring bird – which is an unscathed, very singing talented bird of the same type – the bird friend goes to the trapping place before sunrise, often being necessary to walk for hours, to hide the traps and alluring birds, to account for the earlier observed behaviour of the birds. At sunrise already the first birds may arrive. Then at the latest it is revealed if the alluring bird can do all the calls, as for example alluring, begging and warning (to recognize a talented alluring bird counts to those types of skills that demand lifelong experiences – for this reason really talented alluring birds are kept for life – at home they can get more than 20 years, which is by far not the age they can reach in the wild, which is at maximum 3 to 4 years). Then the bird friend can actively nothing further do than observe precisely. Of course the bird friend has to locate in visibility, to be immediately at hand in the case of eventual danger (sparrow hawk) or successful catch. Ringed birds are freed immediately and the ring numbers are reported; through that already many interesting dates could be found out.
Often the bird friend has to go home without having had success. Nevertheless it had been an exciting day, and who knows, next time you may have more success!
Each bird is different and has its own characteristics. But some are quite similar even within one type. Leading birds of types that join to smaller and larger swarms in autumn behave differently to “ordinary” members. They also differ in the way they sing. For crossbills there are so-called “Schlimpara”, “Guatschreier”, “Hellschreier”, “Tschlocken” and “Wistla”, just to name the most important types. They don’t differ only in the way they sing, but also in their appearance and partly in their behaviour. Regarding the so-called “Bliahstieglitz” type for goldfinches dominating in summer time are rare in autumn. Bullfinches with the so-called “Hefengschroa” singing type come at the end of October at the earliest.
Once you have caught a beautiful male bird the patient work with the animal starts. In general men are perceived as a source of danger when they come closer, from which they want to flee. But this is not possible any more, so it is necessary to take the fear from the bird as much as it is possible. Partly this happens through making use of the bird’s behaviour as “structure escaper”. If the bird flees from a danger, he doesn’t seek bright light, but bushes, the branches of trees or other close thicket. Namely, if the enemy of the bird is in the light and itself is in the dark, it feels the danger being half alarming. Enemies that “creep up” from the dark are most dangerous. So the bird friend has to regard to stay in bright light whereas the bird stays in semi-darkness. Doing so, he is least dangerous for the bird. Of course newly caught birds are kept in very little bird houses, so it can’t be hurt when moving rashly and jerkily. Later, when somebody is able to come closer to the bird without problems, the birds are brought to large houses.
After the exhibition the bird comes - together with the alluring birds - into so-called volieres, where it can fly around. Inside the voliere there are many big and small fresh (conifer) branches over wooden sleeping perches for each individual bird and chalky clear sand as ground coverage (this is what the bird needs as “grounding grains” for digestion and hygiene within the voliere). Birds also like to have a bath, so also bathing facilities are arranged. Of course birds have to be supplied with fresh drinking water daily. As food only seeds (spruce, larch, alder, mountain pine cones, thistles, berries, hempseed, sunflower seeds, linseeds, negro seeds, diverse herbal seeds, and so on), herbs and buds are used. The food corresponds to the type specific demands and suits the seasonal availability and stocks (especially in the case of cones). Eventual illnesses (as for example mite infestation) are treated with the recommended preparations according to the consults of veterinary medicine.
Except few birds, which are kept as alluring birds, all birds are let out at the beginning of the brooding time in spring. The point in time is different from bird type to bird type. First the bullfinch can seek his brooding territory and his female. For this a preparation is necessary to make the animals accustomed to the outdoor conditions. About one month before the birds have only rare contact to men and are mainly supplied with food of the current season (e.g. spruce seeds, wild herb seeds and buds, which the birds have to seek on the floor). Doing so, they become timid and cautious and learn to pay more attention to natural dangers. Since the birds have already learned and know the conditions in the wild, it is possible to set them free in natural surroundings without any complications. If a brooding territory is free, it can immediately occupy it; if there is nothing free it must continue to seek. So it is exposed to the natural conditions, dangers and possibilities such as any other in the territory overwintered bird.
In summer the alluring birds have to be looked after optimally, but the bird friend also has to do observation walks, to find out the circumstances for the “bird line” this autumn. It is essential to find the food places, which are not the same each year, and the possible migration route to these food places. The four desired finch types are grain – eating birds and join to varying large groups outside the brooding times, to look for food places where they can overwinter. Doing so they can do long ways to all possible directions. When they have found enough food they mostly stay there over the entire winter. Already in late summer the collection of food for the winter and the preparation of the catching instruments and bird houses begin, until September 15th when the catching season starts again.
So the annual circle of the bird friends in the Salzkammergut closes, who regard the birds as loan from nature. This type of attachment to nature can not be replaced concerning woodland birds, not at all through virtual alternatives such as movies and computers. In this case a much deeper relationship develops, which is often misinterpreted as being “not up-to-date”.