The hidden fauna of Spanish cities | Spain

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It’s a gray spring morning in Madrid, and people are thronging, most of them staring at the floor or in their smartphones. Arantza Leal, however, looks skyward, focused on a large building near the capital’s Retiro Park. She is looking for a pair of peregrine falcons that have nested in the area in previous years.

There are at least eight pairs of these protected birds in Spain’s most populous city. As life becomes more difficult in their original habitats, they have gradually moved to urban areas, where they find refuge in the many high-rise buildings and can feed on pigeons or parakeets which have also settled here. . There are few other birds able to compete with them, says Leal, a biologist at the NGO SEO Birdlife, which closely monitors Madrid’s bird population. “I saw goshawks and even vultures,” she adds.

One of the Madrid Falcons.
One of the Madrid Falcons.LUIS GILL

“The city is not a desert. In fact, it is much more populated than we imagine,” says Raimundo Real, professor of biology at the University of Malaga. Humans, he explains, change their environment, expelling many other species as we invade areas, while leaving open spaces for others, creating new ecosystems that birds, rats, squirrels, rabbits, hedgehogs and bats, not to mention toads, frogs, lizards, insects and, perhaps most surprisingly, owls and even foxes can occupy. A Rutgers University study of around 150 cities around the world last year estimated that each had an average of 112 bird species and 766 trees and plants, the majority of which were native.

That said, cities are not the most favorable environments for flora and fauna: the Rutgers study showed that only 5% of plants and 20% of birds in the world live in urban habitats. But in a world that is becoming more and more urbanized – 54% of humanity now lives in cities, a figure which should reach 66% by 2050 – calls are multiplying, in particular from the United Nations and the European Commission, for conservation strategies to protect urban biodiversity.

A squirrel in the Retiro Park in Madrid.
A squirrel in the Retiro Park in Madrid.SAMUEL SANCHEZ

A number of cities in Spain, including Santander, Barcelona and Vitoria, are already developing biodiversity plans. Vitoria now belongs to a network created by the University of Virginia School of Architecture that includes San Francisco, Birmingham, Oslo and Singapore.

The Barcelona Biodiversity Plan includes “ecological, environmental, social and even economic measures” that range from the conservation of nature, the physical and mental well-being of the population, to the reduction of pollution and the regulation of temperatures and the water cycle, research and education, the enhancement of buildings, and the promotion of tourism.

According to Joan Puigdollers, head of Barcelona’s environment department, these cities recognize that plants are the main way the Earth captures CO2 and turns it into oxygen. A city’s green spaces can’t be compared to a rainforest, but in an increasingly urban world, we all need to do our part: “It’s about enjoying any space, like rooftops, gardens, plazas, balconies…”, he said.

A heron in Turò Park in Barcelona.
A heron in Turò Park in Barcelona.TEJEDERAS

The plan for the Catalan capital calls for “environmental infrastructure as part of a comprehensive system, with plant and animal life”. That is to say, it is a question of moving from purely decorative green spaces to a self-sufficient ecosystem. This means more older deciduous trees, as well as areas filled with wildflowers, rather than manicured lawns capable of providing an ecosystem for a wide range of creatures.

“They are part of a larger whole, with independent areas. Any loss is a loss to the whole,” Real says of one of the most fundamental principles of how ecosystems work – the idea that every life is linked to the one next to it. Ladybugs eat insects that attack plants; nightingales and other birds eat insects that damage plants and bother people, as do toads, which also clean ponds when they are tadpoles. Birds of prey that hunt at night, such as owls in Madrid’s Retiro Park, reduce mouse populations, while during the day hawks limit pigeon numbers.

Maintaining these delicate balances means ending fumigations, cutting down trees, as well as controlling the presence of invasive species such as turtles and parakeets.

About 1,000 common midwife toads live in the Ciudadela of Pamplona.
About 1,000 common midwife toads live in the Ciudadela of Pamplona.CSIC

Walking along the newly created river by Casa de Campo, the huge park on the northwestern edge of Madrid, Juan Carlos del Moral and Luis Martínez of SEO Birdlife explain the dangers presented by monk parakeets, which first appeared here in the late 1970s, when people released them into the wild or escaped them. There are now thousands of them and in addition to being noisy, their large nests damage the trees. “It’s something that could have been treated easily a long time ago, but now getting rid of it is going to be very expensive,” says Del Moral.

Besides raucous parakeets, the birdwatching couple is also able to identify storks, swifts, wagtails, starlings, chickadees and many other species here. But they point out that the river walk is hardly an example of how to create an inclusive urban environment that helps wildlife: there is no riverbank, there are no flowers on lawns and the lack of birds around indicates the problem. . “Birds are a good indicator of a city’s health,” says Del Moral, explaining that sparrow blood samples are an effective way to measure air quality.

Parakeets in the Casa de Campo in Madrid.
Parakeets in the Casa de Campo in Madrid.MIGUEL PEREZ

The sparrow has already largely disappeared from many European cities, including Madrid, although a few still hold. As we look up into the skies of Madrid, a flock of swifts passes overhead, returning from southern Africa after winter. But most people around us seem unaware of this curious animal that spends most of its life in flight: it eats, sleeps and breeds in the air, resting only to incubate and raise its young. When summer comes, they will be of great help to us by eating the huge quantities of annoying insects that also appear with the hot weather, such as mosquitoes, flies and moths.