I was fortunate enough to spend a long weekend in Florence, Italy in early November. As usual on a city break my attention turned to the wildlife. Florence is about as urban as you can get with 370,000 people in 102 square kilometres. It is the capital of Tuscany and the most populated city in the region. Yet here among the terracotta roofs and clutter of churches there would be wildlife.
The obvious contender is the ubiquitous pigeon; a city dweller extraordinaire. They manage to gyrate between walking feet, speeding mopeds and city buses to penetrate the very heart of the city. Anywhere there is food, there are pigeons. At the centre of Florence is the imposing Duomo. The pigeons who frequented this spot had learnt to sit up on your arm if you held out your hand. They hoped that between your fingers there would be food and whoever got nearest the hand would pick up the feast. A clever trick for tourists; which just goes to show their adaptability.
Around the al fresco tables however, the pigeons were regularly out manoeuvred by the sparrows who could turn on a sixpence to pick up a fresh crumb. They literally took the food out of the pigeon’s beaks with their audacious guerrilla tactics. Throw a crumb to the ground and by the time the pigeons had lumbered up the cheeky sparrows had swooped and conquered. The sparrows even caught the food mid-air demonstrating spectacular eye-wing coordination. Being light on their feet meant that the sparrows could easily hop onto the table to clean up the plates once the occupants left their seats, or even before. No-one seemed to object to these cheerful little chaps and they were never driven away by waiters or irate customers, unlike the unfortunate pigeon. It was wonderful to see so many sparrows again, as only a handful survive here in London.
Back at our apartment we were fortunate to have a terrace area which overlooked the surrounding gardens. This green oasis provided habitat for a number of birds, including, of course, a whole flock of sparrows. Early in the morning they would dart between the two apricot trees and tug at the fruit with their tiny beaks. Occasionally a whole apricot would come away and they would then chase around the garden trying to find somewhere private to consume their meal. There were also starlings who chattered endlessly in the fruit trees making them appear alive, like the burning bush of biblical times. A solitary blackbird would hop through; survey the area and then fly off, obviously looking for something more exclusive.
As I sat on the terrace each morning I wondered how Italy had managed to keep its sparrows alive and flourishing. I believe that it is all down to crop rotation. I could recall a cycling holiday in Tuscany a few years back where I had the pleasure of weaving silently between alternating fields of sunflowers, wheat, rapeseed and wild flowers. Every year a different field is left fallow and the flowers spring up to greet the sun. The earth benefits from a well deserved rest and the insect life thrives on nature’s abundance. Sparrows need insects. They cannot thrive on a purely seed based diet, let alone the crumbs of pastry dropped by city dwellers. These sparrows were taking in protein by finding a plentiful supply of insects, I was sure of it. In England we have unfortunately embraced industrial farming methods with acres given over to a single crop. If sparrows are the barometer of a healthy environment then the U.K. is the sick man of Europe.
The other thing which struck me as I sat with yet another cup of coffee, was the way in which we humans build gardens in the air. No matter how small our balcony or patio we manage to grow green stuff on it. We need to put our fingers in the soil even if we don’t have our feet on the ground.
Back home in England, my birds were glad to see me. No-one had ventured outside the back door in days. The tube feeder was empty, the fat ball holder was bare and not a scrap of seed was left on the ground. Although the pigeons appeared as soon as I put the food out, they were reluctant to come down. They formed an orderly queue along the fence and the braver ones ventured out onto the bars of the hanging baskets for a better view. No-one wanted to be the first. Some of them tried nudging the others in an encouraging way. When it got just too squashy up there on the fence they took off in ones or twos, but all refused to land near the food for fear that it was a trick. I gave up on watching them and fed myself instead. Whilst drinking my tea I noticed the first intrepid pigeon touch the ground and immediately he was followed by a hungry mob.
Once they left I went outside to sort out the feeders. Some of the mealworm had become stuck in the bottom of the feeder tray where the rain had soaked it. Perfect for flies and sure enough as I attempted to dig it out the mealworm came alive with maggots. These maggots would over-winter in cocoons and turn into juicy flies for hungry sparrows in the spring. I didn’t want to destroy them, so I left them where they were and covered them up with some additional mealworm. Just to keep them snug over the cold winter nights to come. I dug about in the shed and found a wire peanut feeder which served as an excellent alternative and filled it with fresh mealworm.
Oscar appeared to have slept though my absence, but did welcome me back by sitting on my chest and dribbling as he purred. Sooty meanwhile had developed a stress induced urinary tract disorder which required a visit to the vet one wet afternoon. Her litter tray had not been cleaned out and being a fastidious cat she decided not to use it. Last time I leave my husband in charge.
Then I checked on the accidental pond. It was full to the brim from all the weekend rain and the nail head guys were lying prone on the surface wondering if the world was really flat and when they were going to be swept over the edge into oblivion. I used a small scoop from the kitchen to take out some of the excess water. I checked each scoop for wriggly bodies before I threw it away under the tree. In one cupful I noticed the outline of a nail head, but he wasn’t moving. I hooked it out with my finger and laid in across my palm. I could see that only the outer case remained, like a lattice shell. At last, the evidence I needed to prove that these larvae were indeed earning their wings and moving on. I now needed to hurry the others along as the cold winter days were approaching and I doubted they would do well encased in a block of ice.