“Nature is my god. The forest is my church.”
2014-08-22 | Text: Alexey Kirillov | Photo ©: Pertti Saurola's archive, thakala and Michael Robbins / Fotolia.com, cs.helsinki.fi; alertapescadora.com | 5533

Hardly anyone would say no when asked, “Do you love nature?” But this love is pretty ephemeral. How else can we explain the mountains of garbage on riverbanks, our wasteful use of natural resources, the uncontrolled felling of forests and the killing of animals for our enjoyment? Only a few are ready to take real efforts to preserve the environment and launch nature conservation projects. Tellingly, these are often people who are quite successful in other fields. One of them is the Finnish ornithologist Pertti Saurola, who has devoted himself and his entire life to the fighting for remaining patches of forest and the conservation of birds of prey. Since 1965 he has run a project in which he attracts bird to nesting boxes that he has constructed. Today his experience is being copied by foreign colleagues, who rightfully call him the world’s main nestboxer.  In an interview with us he told us about his life’s work.


Pertti Saurola is a professional ecologist, professor, and a researcher at the Finnish Museum of Natural History.  From 1974 to 2001 he was the head of the Bird-ringing Center at the Finnish Museum of Natural History; from 1981-1995 he was president of the European Union of Bird Ringing (EURING); since 1982 he has been the Finnish delegate to the International Ornithological Committee (IOC). Since 2002 he has continued his work as a researcher emeritus at the Finnish Museum of Natural History.

– Pertti, could you tell us how you got interested in birds?

Birds caught my interest when I was still a child, when I was 11. We lived in Helsinki, but we had a little summer house by a Finnish lake. There a friend and I began to watch birds, which were everywhere. When we got back to Helsinki we kept it up.  At first I said to my friend that there weren’t any birds in Helsinki, that they all live outside the city. He was upset.  But it turned out that there also birds in the Finnish capital – you just have to be able to notice them. That’s how I became a birdwatcher. At the age of 14 birds became the most important thing in the world to me. As soon as I came home, I ran to birds right away, and when I came home in the evening, I was already so tired that I went to bed right away. I never forgot my school notebooks at home for the simple reason that I never took them home – I always left them at school.

In the classroom I tried to pick a place as close as possible to the window, so I could look out it and count the migrating birds. Our school was situated on a hill in the center of Helsinki, and our classroom was on the top floor, so if I was lucky I could see out the window pretty far. I recorded the number of birds I saw with a pencil on the desk, although doing that was of course against the rules. We didn’t have paper on our desks, either. When the teacher left the room during the breaks between classes, I copied the numbers into a notebook and cleaned the desk. 

– Did they think you were strange at school?

My schoolteacher always said to my mother: “Pertti is always where he shouldn’t be, and he’s never where he should be, but he’s a good boy.” I was never where I should have been because I was very active. 

– Your passion for birds must not have had a positive effect on your academic performance.

I did very poorly at school, of course. Even the student exam couldn’t tear me away from the birds. Throughout Finland one’s school education ends with a student exam, which determines whether or not you get into a university. It’s a very serious ordeal. Your exam papers are sent to Helsinki and are checked there first by you teacher, and then by a board of teachers in all subjects. The exam begins at exactly 9 a.m., and at 9 a.m. exactly the envelope with the assignment for each student is opened. Not a minute earlier, not a minute later. And what did I do while this was going on? Went to look at birds, of course.  It was in April, when the sun rises at 5 or 6 in the morning. I was saved by the fact that the zoological institute where I planned on studying had its own entrance exam. I got questions on biology – one of them was even about woodpeckers. So I got into the institute without any problems, and got only the best marks.

– Birds engrossed you so much that you weren’t interested in anything else?

At school I was pretty good at basketball. And I’ve also sung from the age of 11, and continue to sing. I got my vocal gifts from my mother – she was a first soprano at the opera. My singing started with a vocals contest for schoolboys where the prize was performing at a Christmas radio show. I was glad that my mother and I had different last names – she kept her maiden name when she married – and so the jury didn’t know that I was the son of a famous opera singer. Out of thirty candidates four soloists were chosen, one of which was me. Back then there wasn’t any recording equipment, so making a mistake was unthinkable. I sang on the radio a few times, and only one song was recorded – it’s on CD now.  They gave me a little money for my performance, and when I came home I said: “Mom, now we’ll have something to eat, because he can make money easily by our singing.”  My mother was very worried. She knew what a career as a singer was like. And the situation was different than it is today, too. Every other year the opera singers had to sign new contracts with the opera and far from all of them had their contracts renewed. My mother said that I needed to have a proper profession, but that I could continue to sing if it interested me. 

– How did your relationship with birds develop?

While I was a typical birdwatcher in my school days, later I began to take an interest in research that could benefit birds. I felt like Robin Hood, because I felt that birds (especially birds of prey) were in special need of protection. It was they who suffered most from the bad things people do. In nineteenth-century Finland, as in other countries, birds of prey were exterminated because they were considered harmful. Bounties were paid to kill them. Even the osprey, which feeds exclusively on fish, was targeted; they targeted even small birds of prey that only hunt small mammals and so only benefit humans. After Finland gained its independence from Russia, birds of prey gradually gained protection through legislation. The osprey became a protected species in Finland in 1926, but e.g.  the golden eagle, goshawk and eagle owl were unprotected right up until the 1980s. For a long time birds of prey were first persecuted, then subjected to the effects of pollutants, especially DDT, and then began the destruction of their habitat. Old forests began to be felled for timber. And I began to fight for the conservation of birds of prey. It became very important for me to do something good for nature as a whole and birds of prey in particular.

Once when my wife was watching a TV series, I asked her: “How do you watch this junk?” And she answered: “You do the same thing when you look at owls.” And she was right. Something more than just watching needed to be done. So in 1965 I began to study population ecology of owls. It’s probably the longest research project ever run by one person and which continues to this day. It became apparent that the owls of the genus Strix were very poorly-studied in Finland. First I found a method of catching females without causing them any harm at all. Then I figured out how to catch males. Now every year I try to catch all the  males and females of my study population.  We make large nestboxes, and the birds nest in them.  We also put rings on them to identify them. Owls react pretty aggressively to the ringing of their young. By “agreement” with the female she strikes my head six times with her talons for each nestling. Once there were five nestlings in a nest. In keeping with the agreement I should have received thirty blows to the head, but I got thirty-seven. 


Studying owls, I found answers to very many questions. For example, how constant mating pairs are. I even calculated the percentage of divorces. With the Ural owl, for example, they constitute about 7-9% of cases, but with the tawny owl it’s a whole 15-18%. In my work there were four cases where a male had two females at the same time.

There were individuals that lived nearly twenty years, and they became very good friends to me. And it’s very sad when your friends die. Every spring when I make the rounds of the nests, I hope to meet my friends in good health. Of course, a researcher should be cold-hearted, but I can’t be.

– And what about your singing? Did the birds push that it into the background?

I didn’t have to choose between birds and singing. Music was my second side. I had the enormous privilege of singing as a professional singer. It’s a gift that required no training or preparation; it was easy. For example, when a centennial vocal festival took place in Estonia, I sang a solo with 250,000 people in front of me and 35,000 behind me. I have had at least five concert tours in North America, where I performed as a soloist of the Helsinki University  male choir, which is one of the world’s best men’s choirs. Once the following incident happened. We were chosen out of sixty choirs to go to a choir festival in New York. The manager of the festival, who was from the Lincoln Center (a classical musical center in New York) came and listened to us perform. When he arrived in Helsinki, I was studying the migration of birds in the very center of the Baltics. I slept a maximum of four hours a day, beginning my work at two or three in the morning and ending it at ten at night. The choir’s secretary personally came to a tiny island, along with the border police, to get me and take me to the audition. After I performed the manager of the festival asked me: “Where are you based? At the opera?” I answered: “No, I’m a biologist.” Then he told me: “Drop that right away, and focus on music.”



I’m sure that out of every one in my class, I get paid the least, because I’m a researcher. Everyone else became engineers, doctors, lawyers. But money was never important to me, although I do have enough of it. What I really don’t have enough of, though, is time – I would like to listen to classical music more and write more scientific papers. But overall I’m very happy with my life.

– Is there something in your work that you just can’t accept?

Protecting the environment is the most important thing for me. Finland is a country of forests. Unfortunately, we don’t have oil, gold, or diamonds, so we have to use our forests. It’s awful, because that’s our environment. And that’s what I can’t take. Every old tree is sacred to me. I try to preserve at least small patches of forest. We build artificial nests for ospreys, and now almost fifty percent of them nest in artificial nests. Once, when I gave a presentation in the United States, the audience said: “It’s great that you made that many artificial nests for ospreys.” But I told them: “No, it’s a national shame that we had to do it.”



– What do you consider the most important thing you’ve done?

I won’t say that this is the most important, but still: I wrote a book about ospreys that was named book of the year in the field of science. Of course, I didn’t get off without some personal criticism. One critic said that I’m becoming paranoid about forestry. All the proceeds from the sale of the book went towards a fund for ospreys. I didn’t take a penny for myself. The book’s photographs were prepared by a friend, a retired captain, who was always close to ornithology and interested in the same species of birds that I was.  He didn’t take any money either, and was later chosen to be the manager of the osprey fund. 



The fund supports the Osprey Center and provides the ospreys with free fish – Canadian farm-raised trout. The Osprey Center is a wonderful place that’s open to the public. People can watch the birds and see them catch fish in a pond from an observation tower 50 meters away.  Five meters from it there’s a special platform for professional photographers. The BBC, for example, rents the platform for a week every year so they can photograph, and pay 140 Euros a day for the privilege. Booking for the photography begins in spring, and all the summer days get taken. The center makes good money on this, and each penny goes towards development. All the work that my friend and I carry out is on a volunteer basis. I’m glad that the population monitoring and conservation project of the osprey I started in 1971 still continues. Now about a hundred Finnish bird ringers participate annually in the project. They build artificial nests, check them, ring the nestlings and try to preserve the remaining patches of forest.


There’s one more thing, which is connected with my second side – that is, with singing. Once when I was singing with a choir as a soloist, giving a few extra solos throughout the concert, a young woman came up to me. I’ll always remember what she said to me: “Does it feel great to make women cry?” It truly seems to me that I can touch people’s hearts.

– Each of your steps is for some greater, final goal, right?

Yes, of course. I hope that people will realize that there’s something besides money. That’s respect for nature. We should try to preserve nature. When people in Finland buy a summer house, the first thing they do is chop down all the trees around it, because those trees were not planted by them. After falling down the original trees these people will plant new trees chosen by themselves. These people want to be gods, who decide how our environment looks like. I’m not a religious person. Nature – that’s my god. And the forest – that’s my church. I don’t want people to destroy it.


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