I’ve been living in Rome for just three weeks now, and only in our flat for two weeks or so. Suffice to say, that whole time I’ve been suffering significant culture shock – and climate shock. The transition from 18C English “summer” to 35C Roman autumn hasn’t been easy. There are some elements of continuity, however. The past ten years or so has seen a rapid rise in the population of parakeets in London; we used to sit in our garden on an evening, with flocks of them flying over, squawking distinctively. That same squawk greeted me when I first walked through our charming local park, Villa Sciarra. It seems the same former pet species have gone wild here too, notably the ring-necked or collared parakeets.
Non-endemic species certainly cause profound problems in ecosystems where they did not evolve but suffice to say, it’s hardly the parakeets’ fault, and in some ways I appreciated the familiarity factor.
Also common in Villa Sciarra are the local crow species. Back home in Lewes, Sussex, the Corvus genus was represented by plenty of jackdaws (Coloeus monedula), rooks (Corvus frugilegus), carrion crows (Corvus corone), but here I’ve seen lots of Hooded crows (Corvus cornix). Surely the name is inappropriate though – their handsome grey feathering is more like a cloak than a hood.
Magpies might be nasty, prolific buggers, but by and large I like crows, they’re a handsome crowd, and – without too much anthropomorphism – we can relate to their social nature.
In terms of common species, I’ve less affection for gulls. It seems, wherever you go in the world that’s within about 20 miles of the sea or a major river mouth, gulls will wake you at 5am with their irreverent cackling. Talking of early wake-up calls, we might have to contend with humanity doing its bit with the local campanile, but on our first night in our new flat in Monteverde Vecchio, it was a somewhat hysterical blackbird that woke us from a fitful sleep at around 4am.
Other birds I’ve registered so far – and, yes, these are all common species, but it’s first impressions – are cormorants. The Tiber may look pretty fetid, but if the cormorants fish it, it can’t be that bad right? Not as bad as when Garibaldi wanted to divert it into a canal and pave it all over. Imagine that. Another (non-bird) species that apparently fishes the Tiber is the coypu, or nutria. This excites me a lot. I know they’re aliens (native to South America), but having never managed to see an otter in the UK, or a beaver on a canoeing trip in Canada, I still long to glimpse one of this aquatic mega-rodent family.
On the rodent front, I’ve only had a few encounters so far. Rats are of course always close to humans, especially in places where garbage is strewn so readily. So far I’ve seen one rat going about its business, and another not so much. Lying dead among the litter, dog poo and graffiti on the Rampa di Monte Aureo, one of the many grand but grubby stairways leading up to Gianicolo and Monteverde itself, west of Trastevere. Now then, everyone says “ugh, rats”, but it’s not like they’ve helped spread any black death recently. Besides, the rats presumably play an unpaid role in the management of Rome’s prolific garbage.
Apparently, the ancient Romans just called them “Mus Maximus” – big mouse. Can you guess what a mouse was called? Mus Minimus. There’s got to be a comic or cartoon in there somewhere.
The other rodent I’ve been seeing a lot of – much more so than the rats – is bats. I love bats, they’re so endangered in much of Britain, and I only saw them very rarely in London, but they seem to be doing well here. Every night when sitting on our balconcino, they arrive as night falls. I’m guessing they have plentiful food in the form of all the dang-blasted mosquitoes. They probably like all the churches too, for roosts.
Confusingly, all bats seem to be called pipistrello here, while scientifically, pipistrellus refers to a specific bat genus, and the common pipistrel is Pipistrellus pipistrellus. (I love those double Latin names – the best has got to be Troglodytes troglodytes – an evocatively monstrous name for something as dainty as the wren.)
Finally, another species that any visitor to Rome is likely to see a lot is of course the cat, felis catus. Dismount a tram at Largo Torre Argentina, for example, peer down at the ruins in the centre – and you’ll find them draped with cats. These are members of the famous colonies of Rome, also found at the Forum, the Colosseum, and at the Non-RC Cemetery, where they’re fed by volunteers and cat lovers. Down our street, I’ve also seen bent-backed old ladies feeding the tough-looking local gatti. They’re not wild animals, sure, but they’re certainly not pets. The term “domestic cat” doesn’t really fit for animals that don’t inhabit domus.
Oh, and finally – not a bird, not a mammal, but a reptile. I’ve seen a fair amount of the Italian wall lizard (Podarcis sicula). Beautiful things. They visit our balconcino, hanging out in the window boxes full of spider plants. Again – strangely – it’s a nice element of continuity for me, as a few weeks before we left Sussex, I was lucky enough to see some similarly beautiful lizards (Lacerta vivipara) above the Seven Sisters.