Every city that I visit seems to have a presiding spirit, a bird that is omnipresent but often goes unnoticed. In Prague, it was the Jackdaws, who filled the air with their chinking cries and aerial acrobatics. In London, it’s the feral pigeons. But in Berlin, it’s the Hooded Crows.
These are a bird that I associate with the wilds of Scotland rather than the centre of a bustling conurbation, but in Berlin any dropped currywurst will attract a little party of corvids, hopping over and inspecting the food with their heads on one side, and then picking out the meat, while the sparrows chip away at the bread.
What handsome birds they are, these Hooded Crows. I followed the one in the picture for a short while as he turned over leaves, inspected a litter bin, called a few times and headed off into the trees. He was intensely alert, always with an eye open for an opportunity. There is no doubt in my mind about their intense intelligence, their adaptability or their resilience. Through the whole of the twentieth century they have looked on at the follies of human beings, at their destructiveness and cruelty. The crows were here when a handful of Jewish people struggled to survive undetected in the woods around Nazi Berlin during the Second World War. They scavenged alongside the starving women of the city after it had been reduced to rubble. They hopped over the Berlin Wall to feed on both sides. And today, they are living the high life in the newly tolerant, tourist-friendly Berlin of trendy suburbs and vegetarian restaurants.
But at night, if you look up as you walk along Unter den Linden, you will see the crows flying home. A few crows flying along a side street will meet up with crows coming from another direction, until there are great squadrons of them, lit from underneath by the streetlights. How good that the only things that now overfly this city are birds, rather than warplanes and missiles.
Berlin is something of an urban wildlife hotspot. The parks and lakes and woodland harbour woodpeckers and red squirrels, dragonflies and deer. In the suburban town of Kopenick, you may stumble over a wild boar sow feeding her piglets on the pavement, and there are an estimated 500 families of raccoons in Berlin, descended from 20 who were released when an Allied bomb destroyed the fur farm where they were incarcerated. You do not have to go far to feel that you are no longer in an urban environment, and whilst Berliners seem to feel at home in their city, the hearts of many citizens are in the wilder country that surrounds it. At the first sign of good weather many people head for the ‘beaches’ around the lakes, or out for a hike.
On our last day in Berlin, we went for a walk to the district of Prenzlauer Berg, in the east of the city. This was a working-class district that was also favoured by artists and writers, and was next to the Berlin wall. Nowadays, it is a very desirable location, but these apartments have no gardens, just a courtyard to hang the washing in, and a few windowboxes. So, here on the street, the Berliners have created a painted garden of sunflowers and daisies, roses and violets. As I walk along these streets, under the shade of the London Plane trees, hearing the sparrows chirruping around the cafes, I am happy that this tumultuous, troubled, troubling city is having a period of peace.