The first of an occasional series in which Bugwoman investigates the urban wildlife of other cities.
When in Prague, it’s a good idea to look up. This is not just because Prague has a long history of defenestrations, starting in 1419 when the Hussites threw the whole of the town council out of the window, but because there are many animals and other strange creatures looking down on the population from walls and doorways, pediments and capitals. Take this vulture and pelican, for example:
But, picturesque as they are, I am strolling around Prague looking for other kinds of creatures. After a hard day wrestling with computer systems, I need something that reminds me of my place in the natural order of things.
On my first evening, I took a walk down to the bridge nearest to my hotel. Still more animals cropped up, although they were of a rather rough and ready nature. The area feels just a little seedy – there are all-night bars and gambling dens, and many polite but destitute people begging for a few coins. But it has a rugged charm that I rather like. People actually live here, and shop here. It isn’t the main tourist area. And, so far, it has been mercifully free of the hen and stag parties that turn the prettier parts of town into a vomit-strewn disaster area on Friday and Saturday night.
I was on my way to see the ‘Dancing House’, or ‘Fred and Ginger building’ on the other side of the river. It was designed to look like two people dancing, and was very controversial when it was first built in 1996, because it wasn’t the same as all the other architecture. But what do you do with a vacant lot- build pastiche, or build something daring? I think that it’s charming, and completely unique.
As I crossed the river, I noticed some wooden pilings on their sides in the water, forming a perfect roost for the intrepid Prague pigeons.This is a very popular spot. Pigeons are bowing and cooing and drinking and settling down. They fly in very fast and very low, as if trying to get under some predatory radar. As they land, they often force the birds all ready in residence to make a speedy side-step. I had seen some kestrels hovering overhead, but pigeons are too big for them to attack.
Looking at these photos later, I realise that some birds are actually making their nests in amongst the wood and debris. Yet again, I am filled with admiration for the adaptability and ingenuity of pigeons, who can take any urban niche and make a home of it.
And then, there are the jackdaws.
Prague is full of them, cackling and chinking and chuckling, playing games in the air. I wonder why a bird can be perfectly happy in one city, and non-existent in another? In London, the only place to see jackdaws in any numbers is Richmond Park – their ‘niche’ in the rest of the city is taken by crows, magpies and (increasingly) jays. But here in Prague they are the number one corvid, and have all the swagger and cheek of a much bigger bird.
I crossed back over the river, thinking about how life imitates nature:
and then headed back towards home. My feet were sore, my back ached, and I was in dire need of a small beer. But as I walked under the lime trees, and passed the most magnificent oak tree I’ve seen in a long time
I noticed that under every tree there was an insect fiesta going on. Clouds of flying creatures were hovering and zapping and wheeling in a winged frenzy. I couldn’t see exactly what they were, but they had the feeling of moths or caddisflies. Maybe they had just emerged as adults, and were using this humid, limeblossom-scented evening to find a mate.
I found a little swarm and, much to the confusion of passing tourists, tried to capture them on film.
One little boy stopped to stare and, as his mother dragged him away, asked ‘Why is that lady filming that post box?’
As I headed back to my hotel room with its yellow curtains and uncomfortable modern furniture, I realised that there was a spring in my step, a sense of being more settled and at home. I had seen some familiar creatures, like the pigeons and the swans, and my curiosity had been piqued by the dancers under the trees. Furthermore, I hadn’t thought about Purchase Order Processing or system errors once. There is nothing like spending time with plants and animals to take you out of your head, and into the stream of things.