Even when the bird is walking, one senses it has wings.

Antoine-Marin Lemierre

As city stravaiging goes, some cities are better than others. Better in the sense that they may accommodate our bipedal tendencies more freely, and better too in terms of offering us a world that goes beyond mere city logistics. Warsaw, with its great canyon roads, and its strict jaywalking laws (blisters from the Stalinist and communist eras) could perhaps be a little kinder on the stravaiger’s legs, though in terms of getting beyond the metropolitan machine, in offering us a world by way of its birdlife, nature and space, it excels beyond the norm. Warsaw is, in many aspects and contrary to popular belief, an organic city bustling with the sort of life that one tends to ignore when talking of metropolitan centres.

Everybody knows that Warsaw was almost completely annihilated during World War II. The city was a battlefield for half a decade and suffered losses, both human and other, on a grand scale. It was, ironically, in this destruction, and the destroyed buildings, the cracks and crannies which in some places lay for years, that the proliferation of the city birds that we see today first found their footing.

Not unlike the re-colonisation of London’s east-end by black redstarts who found the rubbled habitat particularly alluring, the synanthropy (the ability to exploit anthropogenic breeding sites) of jackdaws and other birds to Warsaw was similarly effected by the devastation of World War II. This was further compounded by the ever-changing landscape of the Polish countryside. Destroyed buildings provided jackdaws and crows with ideal nesting places at a time when suitably old trees on the edge of forests were disappearing (jackdaws normally nest in older trees and do not like to delve too deep into forests). Other cities in Poland like Wroclaw, Poznan and Lublin also experienced similar changes in their avian populations at this time with their successful urbanisation and breeding continuing well into the latter half of the twentieth century. Reconstruction of these cities, however, was to have a marked effect, on the birds. An effect that was not all for the worse and which still continues today. Populations, due to newly evolved architectural technologies that do not accommodate our feathered friends (co-habiting birds are increasingly viewed as a nuisance), have been on the decline since the early 1980s. Yet, somewhat ironically, the architecture that gets Warsaw much of its flak, namely the gargantuan grey blocks of Stalinist Socialist Realism built in the 50s, are buildings whose wealth of niches and nooks, spandrels and overhangs, provided first class accommodation (and still do) for the resident wings of Warsaw. We could perhaps say that functionalism as an architectural policy extended, albeit unintentionally, beyond the realm of humans.

During the reconstruction of Warsaw, a resuscitative process which is still going on today, it wasn’t just the city’s buildings that were restored, rebuilt and refashioned but also its parks and open spaces. Like Glasgow (my own native city), Warsaw possesses, as one of the greenest cities in Europe, a side to its face which provides a jarring contrast with the great grey city of billboards and bombs. Here, midst the great green spaces of Royal Lazienki and Wilanow, the ever-present plaques and memorials honouring ‘the glory of the dead’ and reminding us without pause of the tribulations of war are conspicuously absent. Cleansed of candle and cruciform, shrine and billboard, there appears in Warsaw’s parks, fields, and forests a city freed from epitaph, and a city unchained from the destructive and stifling subtext that so often underwrites it. The centre of Warsaw is a city of great gardens such as Ogrod Saski and Ogrod Krasinskich; it is a city of wondrous tree-filled cemeteries, of the great Cmentarz Powazkowski and Cmentarz Brodnowski. It is a city with a proximity to the primeval, to the untopiarised ‘puszcza’ of Kampinos and Bielany, to the many 'rezerwat' that perforate the city. It is a city that whether looked at on map or from a plane is rather more green than grey.

The humble house sparrow, the most numerous of Warsaw's birds with an estimated 160,000 pairs, a far cry from British cities' much depleted populations.

Birds have taken to Warsaw not just as a side-effect of the destruction that levelled it, nor indeed for the abundance of the city’s trees, but also for the largest untamed stretch of water in Europe and Poland’s major river, the Vistula. The Wisla (Vistula), which cuts a dash across the length of the country from the Beskidy Mountains in the south to the Bay of Gdansk in the north, is a major flyway for migratory birds to and from Africa and a constant source of food and shelter for many others. Its Varsovian banks haven’t suffered (at least not yet) the ignominy of waterfront ‘regenerations’ that many other European cities have seen. Consequently, the Vistula’s banks are riddled with sand and growth, wet and wildness, with the land rising naturally from the water’s edge up into the city. In the middle of the river there are sandbars and spits, nesting and resting places for the consummate travellers, the common tern, the gulls, ducks and swans. Along the way, there are little colonies of black-headed gulls who have taken to the archipelago of sand bars that lie just above the fast flowing river.

Deviating from the Vistula just south of the centre through the sinewy Kanal Wilanowka towards the wonderful grounds of the Royal Palace of Wilanow (the former hunting grounds of Warsaw's nobility) and its lake, Jezioro Wilanowskie, there are sieges of herons, the odd pair of garganeys, and a wealth of lesser and middle-spotted woodpeckers that can inspire wonder in the most jaded of eyes. Another of the royal grounds, and even more centrally located, Royal Lazienki, is no stranger to the cackling cry and determined drums of the elusive green woodpecker. The woodpecker is one such family among many that has successfully adapted to the urban environment of Warsaw.

Royal Lazienki, in the heart of the city, is also a haven for red squirrels, thousands of rooks, hooded crows, jackdaws, tits, sparrows (both tree and house), nuthatches, jays and magpies, as well as many other birds and animals. Other less common birds that have been spotted over recent years include golden orioles, waxwings, and wheatears.

The abundance of corvids (especially the ambling jackdaws) and sparrows was the first thing to hit me when I arrived in Warsaw in the middle of autumn. The city is teeming with them and their sounds. They saunter the pavements and grass verges as if they own the place. Indeed, they do. They were here well before the city chased them away and its destruction brought them back again. As pilots of the sky these birds are magnificent. And yet as walkers, whether pigeons or jackdaws, they also excel. There is a curiosity amongst them, a sense of sharing space, that engenders amongst passers-by, albeit subconsciously, a sense of real community that goes above and beyond the often laboured mono-species relations of humans. There is, if you will, an inter-species communication going on, fostered by the calm relaxedness that birds show (and vice versa) when near to people. The pavements belong as much to the bird as they do to the human.


It is perhaps true to say that most people, Warsaw or not, are unaware of how many species of bird they share their city with. In Warsaw alone 247 species of bird have been noted in the past 15 years including 139 breeding species. These include various species of owls, birds of prey (six species have been observed including sparrow-hawks, buzzards, and peregrine falcons, one pair of which was nesting on the Palace of Culture and Science, Warsaw’s enormous landmark skyscraper). Even white-tailed eagles in search of food and warmth are now regular visitors to the city, taking advantage of resources here that are not available or that are in lesser supply in rural landscapes.

Urbanisation, however, typically results in a minority of species dominating the fauna, and it is here that the Corvidae family, sparrows, and finches have taken over. Their capacity to habituate to humans has been a key attribute of their synanthropy. This habituation however is not born simply out of love. There is in Warsaw a huge number of bird tables and feeders placed in back greens and in parks, hanging from balconies and dangling from bushes. Though perhaps unaware of the quantity of different species that shares the city with them, the people of Warsaw are evidently aware of the fact that they do share it. There is a spread of bird houses that would rival even that of the human houses of the great suburban dormitory of Ursynow. Their architecture, propped carefully against many tree trunks, assumes a compassionate aesthetic that Socialist Realism in its often blank austerity could never achieve. Feeders, in the shape of empty water bottles and disembowelled canisters, hang from almost every tree and bush. Bird tables are constantly refreshed with a small variety of offerings. Little tin pots of water balancing birds upon their rims are placed in back greens and at the sides of pavements. Trees are belted with bread buckets requesting residents to deposit their unwanted bread. Benches too abound for those humans interested in participating in the spectacle of the bird city. This provision of food and shelter has managed to offset some of the avian evictions that have been caused by the sheerness of modern apartment blocks, and subsequently lessened the rapidity of the decline of the city’s bird population.

Maybe, through the immensity of its historical loss, the people of Warsaw have held close the sanctity of life, which is demonstrated not only in their sense of community for each other but through a compassion for the non-human life that inhabits the city.

This profusion of bird, plant and animal life, which instils the city with an aliveness (that goes beyond mere liveliness), has added a mystical aura to Warsaw, an aura that is considerably less melancholic than the city that has hitherto been covered in concrete, and storied with death.

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