By Ágota Ábrán, post-doctoral researcher at New Europe College
In 1934, Silvia von Spiess, head of the ornithological section of the Royal Hunting Office of Romania, wrote the following in an article about looking for bird’s nests in the Danube Delta to ring chicks in the hunting magazine ‘Carpații’ (Carpathians):
‘The journey is interrupted in Bucharest, and after running through the hot streets – arrangements, shopping, preparatory business – it is a real recreation to have lunch in the cool, welcoming house of the English Ambassador. My visit to Bucharest was unexpected, and I am about to show you its reason: It is the best time for ringing passerine chicks, which have not yet left their nests, and so my father and I set out to survey the bird-rich lands, to mark with numbered and addressed aluminium rings some rare birds, – as is done in all countries, in the service of studying the passage of migratory birds.
My father has already left: he is searching the rocky valleys of Dobrogea for young birds of prey – hawks, eagles, owls, etc. – while I intend to go deeper into the wildernesses of the lower Danube to perform my duties as an ornithologist there in the colonies of herons. My plan arouses great interest, especially in the Ambassador’s wife, and I can only reply, with all my heart, “Come with me!”
Each wearing a sports suit, buttoned up, against the plague of mosquitoes – a wide hat to protect from the sun, food and quinine … we both set off for the adventures, which await us.” (Carpații, 1934, No. 10, p. 253)
I was fascinated and excited to imagine these two women having their adventures in the 1930s in the Danube Delta, ringing chicks.
Silvia Stein von Spiess was born in 1901 in Sibiu as the first daughter of the Austro-Hungarian officer of Bavarian origin, August von Spiess. August von Spiess was the director and master of the Romanian Royal Hunting Office in the 1930s. Silvia had a childhood surrounded by wild animals not only through hunting but also animals raised in the garden of the house (bear cubs, wolf, wild boar), and she took part in the care of eagles and vultures in the household. Silvia became interested in ornithology and researched bird migration and the avifauna of the lower Danube Delta. In 1929 she became a member of the German Ornithological Society (DOG) and corresponded with leading ornithologists of the time. She met and remained in good relations with Romanian ornithologists throughout her life, among them Ion Cătuneanu, who was to organize and lead the Romanian Ornithological Centre (1939-1970). She was the head of the ornithological section of the Royal Hunting Office until 1937 and published in national and international specialist journals.
In the 1930s, in addition to specialist publications, however, Silvia was a frequent writer for the hunting magazine ‘Carpații’, founded in Cluj in 1933. Here, together with other ornithologists and bird enthusiasts, Silvia urged hunters to help the science of ornithology by reporting migratory and ringed birds and disseminated scientific knowledge about birds through articles written in the magazine. In April 1933, she wrote an article about ringed birds in Romania, explaining:
“One of the most important means of ornithological research is the ringing of birds, in order to determine their flight paths. But what is the use of putting rings on the feet of tens of thousands of birds every year if hunters, to a large extent, do not know that they have a duty to science: to report the captured or shot bird to the address printed on the ring. This is why it is necessary to spread active propaganda to clarify the situation. We owe thanks to some hunters with an interest in science, that in recent years we have been able to collect a number of sightings, which make it possible to note on paper the path of some birds, as is done very intensively in other countries of culture.” (Carpații, 1933, No. 04, p. 21) Thus, the hunting journal ‘Carpații’ becomes a kind of reporting and communication agent between ornithologists, bird enthusiasts and other hunters discussing diverse issues relating to birds, such as migration, the protection of some birds, as well as the correct identification of certain species, the reporting of rings on shot birds, the reporting of the first migratory individuals in spring, or other interesting stories relating to the behaviour of birds.