New BirdEyes member: Tjibbe Stelwagen

When I was a marine biology student, I had a summer job giving mudflat excursions on the island Ameland. I often joined other guides so I could learn from them. Once, I listened in on an introductory talk by a colleague with many years of experience under his belt. As we all did, he too explained about tides, the food web and some practicalities but then he suddenly stopped. He paused, looked over the mudflats and spoke in a mysterious voice, almost as if revealing a secret: “But we have to go now, the snails are waiting for us!” I loved this perspective. I immediately imagined snails looking annoyed at their watches while hanging around the coffee machine. To me, just like that, the Wadden Sea changed from an ecosystem into somewhat an equivalent of George Lucas’ ‘a galaxy far, far away’. Even better because it was right there at our feet, not far away at all! Waiting, indeed, to be explored, harbouring all sorts of creatures and characters, minding their businesses, living their lives. 

At that moment I became aware how I had perceived my role as a nature guide so far solely as a communicator of facts. I had been diligently learning all the species names in five languages, reading up on Wadden Sea ecology as much as I could and then trying to spit it all out to my audiences. But my colleague with an aural pen stroke sketched a scene of characters ready to perform a play, to tell a story. It forced me to question what I wanted the tourists and the school groups to take home: the knowledge to recite, say, the life history of the Shore Crab, or the feeling that the Wadden Sea is this mysterious and intriguing place that has fascinating stories to offer?

Of course, there was room for both. But in science, the dichotomy often remains. In order to communicate our findings in a credible way, we do not allow ourselves much artistic freedom, let alone anthropomorphize snails. A good story on the one hand and scientific rigour on the other easily seem to be opposite poles. This is not an issue for the happy few who exclusively love facts and are satisfied only living in a world of cognition. However, most people have a hard time understanding, or even caring about facts, about science.

On the contrary though, everybody loves a good story. And this to me, is the attraction of BirdEyes. BirdEyes aims to bring science to society by reconciling scientific rigour with storytelling, without compromising either. And this is not a contradiction, because the birds in fact do tell a story if you know how to listen. As we follow them in time and space, a sequence of events unfolds: where and when they rest, moult, nest, forage and so on. And this raises questions: Why there and then? What does that teach us about the environment? And about the impact of human activities? And so, stories naturally unfold. 

My role in BirdEyes will be to unlock the stories of the “Waakvogels” (Brent Goose, Spoonbill, Sanderling, Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-tailed Godwit, Red Knot) to every conceivable stakeholder, including the general public. To be the interface between science and society, in order to ultimately bring knowledge and insights not only to people’s minds, but foremost to their hearts. Because what is in our hearts, we care for.

Centre for global ecological change at the University of Groningen

Birdeyes is a science and creative centre that views the world - almost literally - through the eyes of birds. More and more birds are flying around with tiny transmitters, loggers and other high technology on their backs and legs. This generates an unimaginable amount of information. By cleverly combining such data with other sources of information, and by using new ways to tell stories and share the insights with, BirdEyes strives to open up a new knowledge network. The centre aims to be an innovative part of the University of Groningen and is linked to the Rudolph Agricola School for Sustainable Development. BirdEyes, with empirical and inspirational roots in the farthest corners of the world.

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