Giant South American birds cause chaos in northern Germany

Hundreds of errant flightless birds have confounded attempts to control their population and are gobbling up farmers' crops. North German agriculturalists want to start shooting the birds, but face legal hurdles.

Giant South American flightless birds are causing chaos in northern Germany after their population more than doubled, farming groups announced this week.

Germany | 03.08.2008

The autumn census of Europe's only wild rhea population, at the border of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein, found numbers had jumped from 205 birds in spring to 566, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The population explosion of greater rheas came despite population control efforts in the Schaalsee Biosphere Reserve.

Almost 300 of the counted birds were juveniles born this year, presumably due to the uncharacteristically warm and dry summer.

Read more: Big South American Birds on the Loose in Northern Germany

Who let the fox out?

If you suddenly come face-to-face with a fox after a night out clubbing in Berlin, don't worry - you're not hallucinating. The entire city of Berlin has become a habitat for foxes, says conservationist and wild animal consultant Katrin Koch. In fact, studies show that there are now more fox dens in the city than in forests.

Playful racoons

It's not just foxes that might cross your path unexpectedly. Racoons are all over Berlin as well. They like to climb houses and play around in gardens and parks, and can even be found next to busy streets. Racoons are troglobionts, which means they live in caves. And they actually find more caves in the city than in the countryside, be that in roofs, chimneys or hollow trees.

Boar the explorer

As if the thought of wild foxes and raccoons in the middle of Berlin isn't scary enough, you could also easily run into a wild boar. They usually live on the outskirts of the city, but lately they've been coming more frequently toward the center, says Koch. The good news is that they've never attacked anyone, and don't really pose a threat. Nor do foxes or raccoons, by the way.

Beaver the heaver

Although beavers aren't native to Berlin, in the last decade they've made the city their home. That's because the species is protected, and they are not allowed to be hunted anymore. Now, almost all Havel and Spree waters are populated by beavers - so watch out for the furry, bucktoothed animals when you take a nice summer dip on one of Berlin's many waterways.

More bats than rats?

Gotham might be the home of Batman, but Berlin is a city of bats. One of their favorite hangouts is the citadel in Berlin's Spandau district, where thousands occupy a huge wintering ground. But they can also be seen swooping all over the city center, as buildings act as artificial cliffs for them.

The funny bunny

Whether it's a hot summer day or a snowy winter night, if you look closely you'll see the cutest Berliners of all: bunnies! Rabbits love hanging out in the city's parks, like Kleistpark, but they can also suddenly scamper out of any bush. I once encountered a fox surrounded by a family of rabbits in the middle of Berlin and thought: Am I in Wonderland? Maybe I need to party a bit less.

The rarest of them all

The biggest sensation of Berlin's wild animals is also one of its rarest: the white-tailed eagle. According to Koch, the first white-tailed eagle returned to Berlin in 2002 after nearly a century. It's the largest raptor, or predatory bird, that Berlin has to offer. So next time you see a large brown bird with a wide wingspan and a sharp yellow beak making the rounds over Berlin, snap a pic.

Apartment dwellers

The most famous falcon in Berlin is the kestrel. They love breeding high above us, where there's fresh air - and space, such as wall openings and window bays. Kestrels are now protected by the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), which installed nesting boxes all over the city at schools, churches and industrial buildings - making them apartment dwellers just like most Berliners.

Cheeky Berlin sparrow

Berlin is the city with the largest number of birds in all of Germany, including songbirds, raptors, and even large seagulls. But the cutest of them all is the cheeky Berlin sparrow that'll happily eat out of your hand. While the sparrow population in other German cities like Hamburg is decreasing, they're thriving in Berlin and are ready to dip their beaks into your food when you're not watching.

Night owl

One of Berlin's most unique wild animals is the night owl, or party animal. Its habitat includes the districts of Neukölln, Friedrichshain and Kreuzberg. This species can be identified by their glitter-covered bodies, preference for drinking Club Mate and their attraction to loud electronic beats. In the early morning hours, the party animal can also be found sleeping on the city's trains.

Hungry, three-toed giants

The birds, which are distantly related to the ostrich and emu, can grow to 170 cm (67 in) tall and can weigh up to 40 kg (88 lb). Farmers dislike the three-toed giants as they can devour cereal and rapeseed fields.

The local farmers' union claims the birds cause tens of thousands of euros of damage to farms each year. They also occasionally stroll onto the autobahn, causing headaches for commuters.

Read more: Insect and bird populations declining dramatically in Germany

The German population is descended from a few breeding pairs which escaped from an exotic meat farm near Lübeck in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They migrated to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and found a home for themselves in the extensive fields and meadows of the UNESCO-listed Schaalsee Biosphere Reserve, where they prospered.

Wildlife officers have been controlling the population by drilling the rhea's eggs and covering them in wax, but the campaign appears to be getting less effective.

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Farmers have been lobbying the government to expand their efforts and allow the male birds to be shot, and state authorities have agreed to look into alternative population control methods. However, the so-called neozoans (introduced species) are not listed as an invasive species as they do not cause damage to native fauna and flora, complicating eradication efforts.

Nature and Environment

Baby love

Adorable scenes like this were one my motivations for visiting Mhou Farm in the southwestern German town of Rülzheim. But once I'd been introduced to these cuties, would I be able to stomach a plateful of ostrich?

Nature and Environment

Local pride

After a journey by bike across the Rhineland's wide-open landscapes, road signs confirmed that Mhou Farm is more than just a breeding farm - it's also a tourist attraction, drawing visitors to meet and greet the exotic livestock.

Nature and Environment

Crossing continents

From the moment you enter the farm, details are perfectly arrayed to evoke the ostriches' wild home. A palate of browns and greens invites visitors to step into an imagined Africa, where the world's biggest bird is the star of the show.

Nature and Environment

Close encounter

And finally, face-to-face with the main attraction. Up close, they have something of a dinosaur feel about them: Long spindly legs, a round body fluffed up with feathers, and a winding neck leading to a peculiar little head. Their default expression isn't exactly friendly. More like they've just gotten a whiff off stale Limburger cheese.

Nature and Environment

Ostrich mother

Uschi Braun cares for the birds almost every day, whether rain or shine. Braun took time out of her busy schedule to tell me about Mhou Farm's history: Braun and her husband Christoph Kistner fell in love with the strange birds more than two decades ago. After visiting several farms in South Africa, they decided to start their own feathered family back home.

Nature and Environment

Bed time!

Cuddly as they look, I had to make do with viewing the chicks through a window, as they are brought in to settle down after an exciting day exploring the great outdoors. But as the parent of any baby learning to walk won't be surprised to hear, sleep doesn't seem to interest them much. It's exhausting just watching them!

Nature and Environment

From sweet to meat

For all their energy, one day the chicks will end up on someone's plate. At about 10 months old, they're driven to the slaughterhouse by night. When they return to Mhou Farm, they do so packaged and ready to cook. But their meat doesn't come cheap - these steaks cost around 25 euros apiece.

Nature and Environment

Fancy a taste?

The tender ostrich meat raised at Mhou Farm can be sampled at the on-site restaurant, in a range of exotic organic dishes. Braun and Kistner also suggest recipes to prepare at home - think of it as the latest word in German speciality cuisine.

Nature and Environment

Nothing wasted

Just about every part of the giant bird seems to find its way into the Mhou Farm shop. The feathers make luxurious dusters, the fat is used in cosmetics, the skin for leather products, and a huge ostrich egg makes a striking ornament. Braun and Kistner also sell products from artisan cooperatives in South Africa.

Nature and Environment

Don't be a stranger

My day at the ostrich farm was certainly an eye-opener. Is it ethical to keep these formidable African birds captive in Germany? That's a debate which is likely to go on for some time. But if you're ever in Rülzheim, Uschi and Christoph will be happy for you to come visit, and make up your own mind.

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