OMG, it’s followed us!” I said to my wife as, walking down the graceful Carrer d’Aragó in Barcelona, I suddenly saw a grey heron winging its capacious way over the housetops.
Silhouetted against the blue sky, catching the evening sun, for a second it replicated our home-bird, the heron that-haunts-us in west Cork.
That same haunting heron — looking splendid in grey silken plumage, with white bib of trailing feathers streaked with black — is almost certainly plaguing my son, at home. Or if not yet, it soon will be, as its young hatch and grow.The amount of fish it consumes (for regurgitation) then becomes prodigious, a half-bucket, two to three kilos of by-catch each day.
It is now the heron breeding season, and said free-loader, free-luncher, will have a wife to feed on the nest and, perhaps, already some hatchlings. As we are not at home, our son Fintan will be the target, or our neighbours, the Hanlys, to whom it resorts in our absence.
We left two freezer drawers full of by-catch kindly donated by the trawler fishing from our local pier. The heron is only too happy to gulp down the discards; and this is one sensible use for fish which the fishermen, like ourselves, dislike to see wasted.
The heron I saw yesterday evening was heading for Barcelona Zoo where, above the cages of a large aviary, is located the largest heronry in Catalonia, and biggest urban heronry in Europe, housing some 100 nesting pairs. Urban legend has it that, in the 1970s, a single heron cleverly escaped from the aviary, and decided to stay local. Probably a female, it was joined by a wild mate, and the colony began. The bird that flew over C. d’Aragó had, likely, been fishing in the Besos or Llobregat rivers or in the Llobregat’s delta lagoons.
Meanwhile, as I write, I can hear parakeets screaming in some palm trees down the street from the apartment kindly lent to us by my niece, where they have constructed nests half the size of a haystack and weighing up to 100kg. Over-large nests are demolished by the authorities for fear pieces would fall on citizens’ heads. The Monk or Quaker parakeet is the most common species in the Montjuic area, a green hill on the south side of the city. They first arrived as pets in the 1970s. Then, owners, driven demented by their chirping, began to release them. Fifty birds gathered and bred in 1974. There are more than 3,000 birds in Barcelona, Europe’s biggest colony.
More colourful and exotic than the city pigeons, and grudgingly welcomed as such, they can, however cause serious problems. Aggressive birds, they eat flowers, grass, dates, juniper berries, fruit, eucalyptus bark and bread thrown to them by sentimentalists. At too close range, they drive locals to distraction with their noise.
They threaten the survival of local bird species and, more worryingly, have taken to the countryside, at first returning to the safety of their city colonies at night but now becoming a rural feature in places. As early as 2003, Catalan farmers complained Quaker raiders had guzzled more than 50,000 of their prime tomatoes.
Globally, the species is responsible for millions of dollars of crop damage, particularly in the USA, where effective controls are sought. Man versus the Monk parakeet dates back to the Inca Empire, and Darwin wrote about their depredations in Uruguay in 1833. However, it may be that their raucous noise and vivid colouration makes them seem even more ubiquitous and the actual damage to be exaggerated.
Another six species of parrots (Psittacines) nest in Barcelona, many of them more colourful than the Quaker Monks. Overawed by Gaudi architecture, intrigued by Joan Miró artworks, fascinated by the Maritime Museum, seduced by the wonders of Catalan cuisine, from snails to roasted leeks and artichokes, I little thought that natural history would distract me until I got out onto the Llobregat delta, where there are birds galore. But, although the weather is sometimes chillier than at home, I have the parrots of South America and Africa here on my doorstep, vividly-feathered colonists of this beautiful town.
All the Barcelona species are the descendants of escapees or deliberately released birds — Rose-Ringed Parakeets, Blue-Crowned Conures, Red-Masked Parakeets, Mitred Parrots, Nanday Parakeets, Senegal Parrots and the Ring-necked parakeets.
And, I’m told, I may even see the odd pair of lovebirds, budgerigars or Aussie cockatoos.
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