Die Vögel (The Birds)

Berlin wildlife: sparrows and techno-beetles.

In the UK, you might see the occasional pigeon. Wandering along the high-street…picking up bits of old chip in Burger King carparks…limping one-legged around train station platforms like a pathetic Richard III impression…making obscenely loud noises on your windowsill in the wee hours of the morning…accidentally flying down your chimney…clustered under picnic tables in parks…dumbly standing on a car roof…dumbly standing on the spikes put on buildings to repel pigeons…

Yes, pigeons are everywhere. There is a reason why we call them flying rats, and it’s not just because they are like little hors d’oeuvre crackers, carrying a selection of diseases and bacteria rather than smoked salmon and cream cheese. It’s also because you are never more than a couple of metres away from a pigeon at any point; even in your house they are often actually in the roof, their feet skittering away on your ceiling both hauntingly and annoyingly. And the Brits hate them, dear god we hate them good. We teach our children that it is a fun game to swing huge kicks at them to make them fly away (I used to enjoy a variation on this game where you walk at a brisk pace directly behind a pigeon, which simply freaks it out a little and makes it shiver its wings about so it looks like a dweeb). And, of course, they swarm about in Trafalgar Square in a frothing grey sea, fed enthusiastically by tourists and accused of harbouring nuclear radiation (remember that? Who came up with that hilarious idea?) by non-tourists.

Full disclosure, however: I happen to rather like them. I raised three pigeons from tender ages because they were brought to my dad, a vet, by people who had thought they were abandoned. I taught them to fly, which mainly involved chucking them into the air and occasionally poking them out of trees with a long stick when they got stuck in the branches. But as far as ‘urban wildlife’ go, they’re not the coolest things to see mooching about every square metre of a town. In Berlin, of course, we’re a bit more alternative.

Berlin’s speciality is its sparrows. Sure, there are pigeons, but they are almost a novely in comparison to the sparrows, who pip along every pavement like teeny little brown tiddlywinks. There are sparrows in tremendous quantities, great bushels of them, and the noise of them fills the sky with endless cheerful tweets (hashtag: peep peep peep). Speaking of bushels, that is where they like to get together for social events; you might be sitting on a bench one day when suddenly the bush behind you will erupt in frantic cheeping, although there will be no bird visible to the naked eye when you then turn to the bush in terrified curiosity.

I love the Berlin sparrows, despite the city’s half-hearted attempts to keep them under control. “Don’t feed the sparrows!” a bakery will signpost, while there are always three or four sparrows sitting directly on the sign enjoying the crumbs of some leftover Vollkornbrötchen. They are completely adorable. The males look stern and commanding with their dark-stained faces and rusty wings, and the ladies are sweet and soft in fawn brown. Unlike pigeons, their noises are charming and life-affirming, so cheerful and endless that they almost seem like background sound effects to a life-simulation-style computer game.

The sparrows enjoy the children’s playgrounds as much as the kids themselves. While the little Berlin babies smash around the climbing bars and slides causing distress and harm to themselves and other children, the tame little sparrows calmly use the sand as their feather-bath, whiffling around in little hollows in the dust to clean their wings. Sometimes they will hop up to you if you are on a bench and cock their head at you, musing about philosophical questions relating to the presence and availability of crumbs on your person. And unlike with pigeons, I almost always wish I had a few crumbs on me to give them; bless the tiny darlings, they deserve a treat.

So Berlin does urban bird-vermin better than the UK. Go figure. But did you know that they also have the squirrel sector totally covered? UK squirrels, as most of you will know, are grey (pigeon-grey, you might say…) and sassy and often, as we saw on the Great British Bake-Off, remarkably well-endowed. But I will never forget the first squirrel I saw in Berlin. I couldn’t breathe when I saw it and turned around in a silent appeal to the strangers around me expecting them to be equally floored by the sight: walking through Tierpark, I saw a beautiful, golden-red squirrel with tufty ears scruffling about on path in front of me. 

When I explained this astonishing and mythical sight to my friends, they looked at me as if I had just proposed that we all fill our trousers with jelly. “That’s what all completely normal squirrels look like, dear.” In the UK, red squirrels are notoriously rare and have the kind of sacred status otherwise reserved for peregrine falcons or unicorns. In Berlin, red squirrels casually mosey about, keepin’ it real. They wouldn’t know what to say to a grey squirrel if they met one. They keep their wobbly bits to themselves.

Sometimes the differences between place A and place B are huge and disorienting when you move to a new city. But sometimes they are little, and sweet, and make you glad to be experiencing a new version of normal.

Rose T

Jill of all trades: writer, illustrator, designer, editor, web designer, craft maniac

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