Birds of Rome
when one thinks of Rome, “bird” is not the first word that comes to mind. However, on a recent visit there, I learned much about Roman birds and their place in Roman civilization.
Birds were present from the beginning when Romulus and Remus, founding brothers of Rome, were competing to lead the sleepy mountainside village destined for greatness. How did the villagers elect their leader? On a fateful, auspicious day, each brother was asked to count birds they saw. Romulus claimed to have seen twelve; Remus saw six. Hence Romulus became king. When Remus rose up to unseat him, he was killed.
Birds continued holding their exalted place in ancient Rome. The eagle – aquila in Latin – was the standard for the Roman legion which consisted of 4000-6000 soldiers. A legionnaire, called the aquilifer, carried a metallic eagle as a flag when the legion moved. The eagle was considered extremely important by the soldiers and grave consequences followed if a legion lost it. In each of the thousands of towns and villages that the Romans conquered, the inhabitants must have seen this eagle looking down as Roman soldiers marched in.
(America's founding fathers, no doubt influenced by the Roman eagle, chose the bald eagle as America's national bird much to the chagrin of Benjamin Franklin who lobbied for the wild turkey.)
Coming closer to home, the kalem, or purple swamphen, is a common resident of our haors. It is a beautiful bird, purple on top and turquoise-blue on the side. The kalem was kept as a pet by ancient Romans who thought it had magical powers. Why? Because purple was a sacred colour in Rome: for example, Senators wore togas dyed purple. Thus, kalems were adored and even the most adventurous Roman gourmet never ate one.
Fast forward three thousand years to present day Rome. During a short but beautiful trip I see many kinds of birds in the city. There are gulls, parakeets, starlings, pigeons and crows. The gulls are all over the city and can be bold. The parakeets make their presence known by their sound. They are non-native but thrive here.
One morning I visit the Botanical Garden of Rome, on a hillside across the Tiber in Trastevere. The Garden has around 4000 plant species, including many varieties of palm brought from exotic places and orchids that grow from the ground like bulbs. Speaking with Elisabetta Aloisi Masella who works there, I learn that the majestic pine trees that one admires in Rome are not originally Italian. Rather, the ancient Romans imported them from eastern parts of their Empire. In the Garden I see several birds including Eurasian blue tits and monk parakeets which were nesting in the crowns of the palm trees. The feisty parakeets appear to be quite destructive, wasting unripe fruits and damaging the palms with their nests.
I also visit Villa Borghese, the giant park famous for its museum. I choose nature over art and stroll the grounds, admiring the sublime shape of the tall pines while looking for birds. Several wagtails (khonjon) run about in their characteristic buoyant style. Monk parakeets are also here, sometimes snatching seeds from one another. A kestrel flies overhead scanning the ground for prey. But the highlight is a small flock of starlings. They forage in the grass and fly off like so many dark, glittering jewels.
In winter, I am told, Rome involuntarily hosts huge flocks of starlings numbering in the millions. Now that is a sight I would like to see!