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Cities belong to the birds now

Cities belong to the birds now
  • Being confined indoors and the silence have made us more aware of the birds with whom we share our surroundings

It would be lovely to be able to put ourselves inside the head of a bird and see the coronavirus from its point of view. Suddenly, nearly all human beings have disappeared from the streets, as if they had suddenly become extinct, and taken their killing machines and their annoying noise with them. The towns now belong to the birds, who can move around in peace, with no fear of the deadly wheels of the cars, and sing without having to compete with the constant thunder of our everyday bustle. The anomaly of our presence ended all of a sudden and that news just has to be celebrated with a good burst of song.

Omnipresent. Adaptable, undemanding and undoubtedly the most widespread bird on the planet.

Sparrow

Omnipresent. Adaptable, undemanding and undoubtedly the most widespread bird on the planet.

Of course, if in this whimsical supplanting of personality we became a sparrow or pigeon, maybe we would be overcome by anxiety when we realise that the breadcrumbs, the remains of a snack, the delicious traces that humans all over the world often drop, have also gone. Naturally, we cannot know what birds think, especially in times like these when we hardly know what we think ourselves, but the lockdown has definitely made us realise what a huge presence they have in our surroundings. Suddenly, inside our homes, we can hear them sing as a reminder that life goes on, and we wonder if they were there anyway, but we just couldn’t hear them because of the noise, or whether they have come closer because they feel braver when we’re not there.

“Animals that we only used to see in parks and gardens and on the edges of towns can take advantage of the calm to come into other areas, even the centres. This is the migratory period and breeding time for several species of birds, and it may be that we are seeing more of them, or we notice them more. Perhaps people don’t usually notice them, but are starting to now. I think it is too soon to predict major changes, but it is possible that we will see some more, that because of our absence they will gradually become more confident and appear more in city districts,” says Andalusian biologist Álvaro Luna, the author of the book ‘Un leopardo en el jardín’ about urban fauna.

Unmistakeable. Its orange-red breast and face make it very easy to recognise.

Robin

Unmistakeable. Its orange-red breast and face make it very easy to recognise.

Seagulls on the sand

It sounds like a paradox, but our confinement between four walls has been necessary for many of us to become aware of the fauna that lives outside and beside us. Numerous species of birds live in towns and we are looking at them now from windows and balconies, with a certain envy for their freedom. During the state of alarm initiatives have been started, encouraging us to take time to observe them and get to know them better.

Daniel López Velasco, one of the most prestigious birdwatching guides in Spain, had to cancel his planned expedition to Mexico, but in its place he has set up a Facebook page called ‘Aves desde casa COVID-19’ which has attracted more than a thousand members in just a few days.

“They include people who have probably never been bothered to look at a sparrow before. Now they are spotting blackbirds, which ten days ago they wouldn’t even have noticed, and they love it. You don’t have to go to Doñana, people are seeing different species of birds in unexpected places. A lot of people are starting to look, and also to listen: there are plenty of birds who sing in cities, but we normally don’t hear them. Now we wake up to the sound of birdsong. The blackbirds and robins start around 5.30am, so they are like a type of alarm clock,” he says.

Bigger. These are larger and have a long tail. The males are black and the females brown.

Blackbird

Bigger. These are larger and have a long tail. The males are black and the females brown.

Daniel has noticed a change in the behaviour of some birds recently. “They are doing things they couldn’t do before. I live on the coast and there are some unusual sights like the seagulls sitting on the beach at Salinas. Normally they don’t do that, because there are people or dogs around, but now we have 2,000 seagulls on the sand. I had never seen crows or magpies jumping around on the beach before, either. And earlier today I saw a grey heron on the sand, and that’s something I haven’t seen in 30 years. Because there is nothing to bother them, some species are probably changing some of their feeding habits or behaviour. They adapt to the circumstances,” he says.

In many cities, peacocks and ducks from the parks have been seen taking a stroll in the streets, in a rather less dangerous version of the bears that explore mountain villages in the north, but this return to nature has to be seen in context: it is a very limited phenomenon and, in principle, will last no longer than our absence.

A need to 'renaturise'

SEO/Birdlife, the Spanish Ornithology Society, is also encouraging people to watch the birds and learn about this wealth of nature.

“Many people don’t realise that birds are always flying over our heads. I live on the outskirts of Madrid and I have seen a black vulture flying over my house. You see a lot of kites and cranes every spring and autumn, for example,” says Beatriz Sánchez, the head of the organisation’s Urban Diversity programme, who also wants to reassure people who are worried about the wellbeing of pigeons and sparrows.

Striking. The yellow and blue colours and constant call mean this bird rarely goes unnoticed.

Great tit

Striking. The yellow and blue colours and constant call mean this bird rarely goes unnoticed.

“You have to bear two things in mind,” she says. “The first is that our leftovers are not the most suitable food for them, and in fact it can be bad for their health. That’s one of the reasons sparrows are disappearing. And on the other hand, this is the spring and there is no shortage of food for them: there are flowers, insects etc. If someone has a bird feeder in their garden it isn‘t a problem, but the birds don't actually need it”.

As in other aspects of life, experts in fauna hope that a change of values driven by the pandemic will encourage us to think more about our animal neighbours. “This emergency should make us reflect on what type of town or city we want. It is a reality that we need to renaturise towns now, we need them to be more friendly and healthy,” says Beatriz.

Last week, SEO/Birdlife presented a new campaign against the destruction of nests of birds such as swallows, swifts, martins, lesser kestrels and storks. Putting ourselves inside a bird’s head is impossible, but surely we are able to put ourselves in their place instead.