Why is this Belarusian town covered in kingfishers?
Kingfishers are popping up around the streets of Valozhyn district in Belarus - in the form of graffiti, sculptures and souvenirs. The reason? The bird elections have just concluded, and the unmistakable blue and orange bird is the lucky avian that has been elected to represent the town.
For some time APB (BirdLife in Belarus) was struggling to come up with ideas on how to engage locals to feel proud of their nature. But the breakthrough came in 2012, when the team, inspired by the fact that each US state has its own bird symbol, came up with the idea of holding "bird elections" to give some of Belarus' districts their own flagship bird, as a way to interact with locals and promote bird conservation.
A local initiative group in Slutsk region ran the pilot project, which resulted in the Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia being chosen as the district’s symbol. The next district to cast their ballot was the Vitebsk region, near the border with Russia, where the Common Crane Grus grus was chosen as the symbol of Myory district.
Given the success of the idea in these two districts, APB decided to use the experience to expand the idea and take it up a notch.
They came up with an initiative, supported by the European Union and the United Nations Development Programme, to choose a bird symbol for the Valozhyn district in the Minsk region. But the district wouldn’t just choose the bird. In honor of the winner, the centre would showcase a sculpture and murals of the elected representative. Local craftsmen would be trained to produce souvenirs and local farmers shown how to conduct natural tours and how to conserve their biodiversity.
Elections got serious with campaigners defending the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis candidacy, beating the opposing Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo in a very competitive race. At the very end of the election process the chosen symbol was officially recognized by the local authorities.
The project was a huge success and the activities that accompanied elections brought birds into the agenda at the local level. It made people of all ages take part in discussions about birds, biodiversity and conservation.
As a follow up to the project, a brochure with step-by-step instructions on how to run bird elections was produced, covering how to choose the candidates, conducting a fair campaign and engaging local authorities (available here in Russian).
So far three out of 118 districts have chosen their local bird representatives. Since APB was eager to involve more local councils, they have invited the other 115 to choose their own bird as soon as possible.
The first results are already in and they are very encouraging: 16 have stated their intention to participate and two of them have already launched the election process. After such high participation from the electorate, all birds will undoubtedly win from these elections, regardless of who is elected.