A Field Guide to the Birds of Berlin
Reflections on urban birdwatching and the season of spring
When we go to the bakery, I get an extra piece of bread to feed to the magpies. It feels childish to empathize so deeply with birds, believe them to be these strange and all-knowing and beautiful creatures, but it feels so inhuman to not. There are magpies in America, but they don’t fill the cities like they do in London and Berlin; these big, smart birds who hop across the grass and let their iridescent feathers catch the sunlight, but only at just the right hours of day. There are hooded crows, too, who caw just like you’d imagine from Edgar Allen Poe poems and black and white movies. I talk to them, say hello, ask where they’re going. It’s nice to talk without feeling like you’re fated to be misunderstood, even if just because they can’t understand you at all. There are bright green finches and woodpeckers whose colors are only rivaled by the electrically neon beaks of the blackbirds and starlings. Then, there are the pigeons.
There are rock doves and wood pigeons in Berlin, never any bigger than a large cup of coffee, their flapping and cooing blending with distant streetcar sounds and barking dogs. I quit my job last week, and I know that I’ll learn that I am far too uninteresting to sustain myself as a freelance writer, and I don’t know if that will give me bittersweet closure or just frenetic fragility compared to the perpetual what-ifs of inaction. When I was eight or nine years old, we took a field trip to the Maine Audubon. We walked around the tall marsh grasses, pants tucked into socks to prevent tick bites, and smelled low tide and stared at the cattails which we were not allowed to touch, much less pull apart their densely-packed fibers as our small hands yearned to do. When we sat, cross-legged, inside, a woman brought out a taxidermied bird and explained that it was called a passenger pigeon. They’re extinct now, she told us, but the skies used to turn black as they’d fly in massive swarms. There were billions of passenger pigeons across the United States in the late nineteenth century, they had lived on the continent for tens of thousands of years, shaping the landscape by planting the once-dominant white oak trees that have since been replaced by red oaks. They slept in piles, right on top of each other with their beaks buried in their breasts, in such great numbers that tree branches would often snap under the weight of their bodies.
A slow decline became a mass slaughter of the passenger pigeon, beginning in the 1870s. A single shotgun blast could kill sixty birds. Hunters shot their nests, burned sulfur to draw them out of their homes, gave them alcohol-soaked grains to make them disoriented, and clear-cut forests to displace them. The final wild passenger pigeon died in Ohio in 1900. A decade and a half later, the last, lonely passenger pigeon would die in Cincinnati at almost thirty years old. Her name was Martha.