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Global Ideas

Berlin environment blog: wings of desire

Berlin has a reputation as a green capital. In this blog, we see if that's true and go in search of the good, the bad and the ugly of the city's environment. So... Magpies? Good, bad, ugly? Or just plain evil?

Several times a week, I cycle past the same spot. Sounds boring, I know, but there's something kind of meditative about knowing where you're going, especially for a hopeless map reader like yours truly. And besides it frees me up to take note of what's happening around me. Which at this time of year is the unfurling of lush green carpets, canopies and decorations that collectively herald the dawning of the northern European spring. And… magpies.

Poor maligned Pica pica. The black and white birds of doom, who for all their intelligence, reputedly well-developed vocabulary and general adaptability, will forever unleash in millions a connection to the great Gods of superstition.

"One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told, eight for a wish, nine for a kiss, ten for a bird, you must not miss."

So the contemporary version of the ancient nursery rhyme goes, deftly re-narrating the darker hues of the 1800s version that predicts funerals, heaven, hell and the devil himself.

The power of the imagination

Elster (Imago/Blickwinkel)

One for sorrow. But who's sorrow?

I would walk under a ladder without flinching, and can never remember if a black cat has to walk from left to right or vice versa in order to become the bearer of bad tidings, but those ancient magpie rhymes must have been delivered to me young. Sung into my infant ear perhaps, for the dread of seeing a lone bird and experiencing the sorrow it promises to cast upon me, has long fluttered at my side.

Muted, I confess, since the day my grandmother shared with me the antidote. All I had to do, she whispered, was salute the sorrowful creature and recite the words "Good morning Mr Magpie, how's your lovely wife." Leaving aside the questionable gender ramifications, I like this little saying, for it reminds me that these birds of ill-repute are actually, much like ourselves, family creatures.  

Not only do they subscribe to monogamy and raising their young as a family unit in, but they decorate their nests with shiny objects they find lying around. And that brings me back to my grandmother. Rumour has it, she once left a ring on the window ledge, making it easy pickings for the Pica pica provider.

Whether or not it is true, I don't know. But then so much about these mysterious creatures appears to be the stuff of legend. Nonetheless, if you happen to see someone cycling around Berlin saluting black and white birds, that'll probably be me.