Vogel im Kopf

Outside our kitchen window (north facing), is a row of Thuja bushes, traditionally the choice in the number one city for a natural way to shun your neighbours. At certain parts of the day, this kitchen window acts like a living advert for birdlife in Vienna. And one can happily stand at the sink, wondering where it all went schiefgegangen (pear-shaped), watching the Tits and their friends bounce around oblivious to the Brexit refugee within. Indeed, only recently I spotted two of Europe’s smallest birds and was chuffed to read in my Vogel guidebook: “The agile busy Goldcrest frequently forages very close to people, apparently oblivious to their presence, especially Brits in the number one city.” And for a few beautiful moments, until I remembered where I was standing, I was captivated.

Thuja bushes generally invoke an opinion. They are relatively cheap, fast growing and easy to maintain. But equally their roots are invasive, the cause of disputes with neighbours (yes, even in city which has reached the hall of fame for liveability) and if they suffer from disease or neglect – like all living things – unsightly. But they are a reminder that despite their divisive nature, they are clearly an important facet in supporting biodiversity in whichever shape you find it, reducing the effects of pollution and protecting my eyes from the visual treat that is the creature who lives at number 147. That said, I probably wouldn’t plant such specimens today, but it is why I leave them largely untouched; to let the smaller birds of Vienna find food, shelter and perhaps a home.

It is not unusual to read about the important role of vegetation in urban centres as they experience extreme heating and pollution driven by the activities of humans and climate change. Of course, Vienna takes its green credentials seriously, as in many places, but reading a recent article about Paris and the difficulties and sometimes challenges of tree planting made me realise things are not always so straightforward. Indeed, in my last flat the owners on the ground floor were in constant dispute with an adjacent neighbour whose garden backed onto our shared garden. The point of contention was very substantial row of Thuja trees belonging to the neighbour in his very substantial garden which denied our fellow owners their “right to light”. As far as I know the dispute was never resolved. And in any case it never bothered us because we could sit on our balcony on the second-floor drinking beer and enjoy what was basically a view of a forest. But in the intervening years, and after we moved, I have come to appreciate that these invasive hedges and large trees which are not untypical for where I am now interned, bring real benefits.

For example, out front (west facing) we have a largish, mature pine tree which secretes sap for most of the year. This is why we don’t have a sign on our gate (Ausfahrt Freihalten or KEEP CLEAR MOFOS) in the hope somebody parks their car in front of it and necessitating an expensive trip to the paintshop for a respray. The testicular challenged insecurities of drivers aside, I mention this because over the years I have seen how this tree protects our home by shading it during the long, hot summer evenings, acting like a natural form of free air-conditioning. Adding value to both the surroundings and the house because in the summers of the future, trees are going to be one of the best, environmentally cost-effective ways to keep places cooler. Unless you like living in an oven.

If nothing else, it got me thinking about my relationship with wild animals, birds and biodiversity in my adopted home more widely and whether Vienna is any better than other like-minded cities. I don’t have many hard facts but as this is the basis for most online content this should not concern us. Moreover, as we have learned, all you need to do is look out the window although probably best not to use your binoculars because although Vienna is probably not the twitcher-king of European cities, it is the curtain-twitcher king of European cities.

Turning our gaze eastwards towards the garden, we see the usual suspects of Tits, Sparrows, Blackbirds and, especially in winter, the occasional Robin. But I have also seen Woodpeckers (Great Spotted and Green), Jays, Magpies, Nuthatches, a pair of Collard Doves, and even bats. And not least, given our proximity to a cemetery, the immovable packs of Crows (possibly Ravens) sent from Satan to whisk us off to Hades. Oh scheisse, we are already there: it’s called Inzersdorf in the 23rd district.

In any case, there are also the hedgehogs, the Pine Martens (Marder in German and correct, no Brit in Vienna ever knew that Marder was Pine Marten because Pine Martins had been extinct in the UK until 2022) and the occasional frog which is baffling because the nearest natural water is about 800 metres away. Which is convenient because this is where we are heading next, to seek out the more exotic.

But wait, what about south? Well, I try not to look south because looking Süd is fraught with peril. Not only are you likely to see Homo Fuckwitus and his family (putting the bat-shit back into bat-shit crazy long before anyone had heard of Wuhan and wet markets) but also the honking screech of Serbus Dick-Swingus, an insidious genus best avoided, visually and aurally.

But enough about the freaks of nature. Grab a flask, some sandwiches, perhaps a little fold away seat and a flash camera. Yes, in part 2, it’s time for Liesingbach Bird Bingo!

(Einen Vogel Haben or Vogel im Kopf is usually translated as any one of these: “to be crazy”, “have a screw loose”, or “be round the bend”. But equally, and one for the traditionalists although a reminder of the inherent danger of teaching idioms to English second language users, “to have bats in the belfry”. Try that one in a meeting or down the pub. LOL)

Part 2

© 2023 RJ Barratt