The grey wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) is distributed over a huge area, breeding in most of Europe, Morocco, the Middle East, the Himalaya, Siberia, Central Asia, China, Japan, and Taiwan. Northern populations spend the winter further south, in Ethiopia, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. In Taiwan, where subspecies melanope breeds in the lower hills, it is common in winter along streams and canals, also in cities.
This grey wagtail is sitting on a wall along a drainage canal in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Canadian, or horsetail, fleabane (Erigeron canadensis, also called Conyza canadensis) is native to North America and parts of Central America. It has been accidentally introduced to large parts of the world, in many places becoming a serious pest, especially in Europe and Australia, but also in its native North America. It prefers to grow in undisturbed areas and is particularly troublesome in newly established plantations, where it is able to resist herbicides, growing to 3 m tall, thus depriving planted species of nutrients and sunlight.
This plant contains an oil with a turpentine-like smell, which, supposedly, should deter fleas, hence its common name. Another popular name is bloodstanch, given by herbalists, who claim that an extract from leaves and flowers arrests haemorrhages from the lungs and alimentary tract.
Horsetail fleabane, growing along a street in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Malayan night-heron (Gorsachius melanolophus) is a small heron, which mainly breeds in Southeast Asia and the Philippines, with northern outposts in north-eastern India and Taiwan. The majority are resident, but Indian birds, as well as some northern birds of Southeast Asia, spend the winter in Indonesia or Malaysia. The main habitats of this species are forest and marshy areas, but in Taiwan, where it is fairly common, it is often found in city parks, where it can become remarkably confiding. These four pictures are from the city of Taichung.
This pair of Malayan night-herons were encountered in a park. The bird to the left is probably a male in breeding plumage, showing deep blue lores and a long crest, whereas the other bird presumably is a female, which is not yet sexually mature, or has retained the immature plumage – a character known from females of this species (see Chuan-Chiung Chang: Malayan Night Heron Gorsachius melanolophus breeding in immature plumage, Forktail 16 (2000), pp. 167-168). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Immature Malayan night-heron, foraging in a polluted stream. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bird is sitting on its day-roost, a garden wall. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The windscreen of this long-term parked car is covered in guano, which has dropped from a Malayan night-heron nest in the tree above. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common orange lichen (Xanthoria parietina), also called yellow scale or shore lichen, is a leafy lichen with a very wide distribution, found in most of Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. This species is one of the few lichens, which is favoured by eutrophication, being very common on rocks, large trees, roofs, walls, etc.
Tombstone with growth of common orange lichen, Kirke Stillinge, Zealand, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Old wall in the town of Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland, with vegetation of common orange lichen and a fern species, the wall-rue (Asplenium ruta-muraria). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common orange lichen, growing on a heraldic lion, Nyborg, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black plumage of the male blackbird (Turdus merula) has given rise to its name. Until about the 17th century, another name of this thrush was ouzel, or wosel, from Old English osle. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the weaver Nick Bottom sings:
The woosell cocke, so blacke of hew,
With orenge-tawny bill,
The throstle, with his note so true,
The wren and little quill.
Formerly, the blackbird was a shy forest bird, but in the last hundred years or so, it has spread to virtually all urban areas in Europe, today being one of the most common city birds. It is distributed across Europe and the Middle East, eastwards to Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and it has also been introduced to Australia and New Zealand.
Male blackbird, preening on a house roof, Funen, Denmark. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Members of the genus Alternanthera, of the amaranth family (Amaranthaceae), are characterized by their whitish, papery flowers. These plants, also known as joyweed or Joseph’s coat, mainly stem from South America, with some species native to Asia, Africa, and Australia. However, many species have been accidentally introduced elsewhere, and several are regarded as noxious weeds. The number of species in this genus varies enormously, from 80 to 200, depending on authority.
One of the worst invasive species is the alligator weed (Alternanthera philoxeroides), which is native to temperate areas of South America. This plant, which thrives in both dry and aquatic conditions, has been spread to more than 30 countries, notably the United States, New Zealand, and China. In many places, it has become a big problem in water courses, as it is most prolific, often blocking the flow of water.
Alligator weed is very common in Taiwan, where it also grows in cities, as this specimen, which has sprouted in a crack in a pavement in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shrikes are a group of striking passerines of the family Lanidae, which perch on trees, bushes, poles, or wires, scanning the surroundings for small prey, such as beetles, dragonflies, bees, lizards, and mice, sometimes impaling them on thorns to be consumed later. Five species of the genus Lanius (true shrikes) have been observed in Taiwan. The generic name is from the Latin lanio (‘butcher’), referring to their food-storing habit.
Altogether four subspecies of the brown shrike (Lanius cristatus) have been described. This species breeds over much of eastern Asia, in most of Siberia, Mongolia, China, Korea, and Japan, spending the winter in Tropical Asia. Further west, it is replaced by two sister species, the red-backed shrike (L. collurio) and the isabelline shrike (L. isabellinus). These pictures show subspecies lucionensis, which is a common migrant and winter visitor in Taiwan.
Male brown shrike, resting on a wall in a city park, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Immature brown shrike, sitting in front of a blooming Taiwanese cherry tree (Prunus campanulata), Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Spreading pellitory-of-the-wall (Parietaria judaica) is a native of southern Europe, central and western Asia and northern Africa, often growing on buildings and stone walls in cities, and along roads. It is regarded as an invasive in Australia, California, and elsewhere.
Spreading pellitory-of-the-wall, growing on a house wall, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Despite its name, the native area of Mexican primrose-willowherb (Ludwigia octovalvis) is unknown, and today it is found in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world, easily becoming naturalized. It belongs to the evening-primrose family (Onagraceae).
Mexican primrose-willowherb, growing along a river in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The most widespread swallow in the world is the barn swallow (Hirundo rustica). This species is mostly nesting on or inside buildings, very often in stables or barns – hence its name. Six subspecies are spread across the major part of the Northern Hemisphere, from the British Isles eastwards to Japan, and from northern Norway, central Siberia, and Kamchatka southwards to North Africa, Egypt, southern Iran, and southern China, and in most of North America, from northern Canada southwards to southern Mexico. Four of the subspecies are migratory, spending the winter as far south as South Africa, northern Australia, and Argentina. The birds may be seen year-round in southern Mexico, southern Iberian Peninsula, Egypt, the Himalaya, southern China, and Taiwan.
Barn swallow, subspecies gutturalis, is a common resident in Taiwanese cities. These were photographed in Taichung. The bird in the centre picture is sitting on a door lamp. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dayflowers (Commelina) is a genus of anywhere between 100 and 170 species, found in tropical and subtropical regions around the world. These plants are called dayflowers due to their flowers, which usually only live for one day. When Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), also called Carl von Linné, named this genus, he let the two showy blue petals of Commelina communis represent two Dutch botanists, Jan Commelijn and his nephew Caspar, whom he wished to honour.
The Asiatic dayflower (Commelina communis) is native to large parts of eastern Asia, from Ussuriland, south-eastern Russia, southwards through China, Korea, Japan, and Taiwan to the northern part of Southeast Asia and extreme eastern India. It has also been introduced to western Russia, south-eastern Europe, and eastern North America, where it has become invasive in several places. In Chinese traditional medicine, the dried plant is utilized to treat a number of ailments, including sore throat, colds, oedema, bruises, and limited urination. A near relative, Commelina benghalensis, is eaten as a vegetable in Southeast Asia and Africa.
Asiatic dayflower, growing along a house wall in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Corvids, such as crows, rook, jackdaw, magpie, and various treepies, are intelligent birds, which were formerly living in more or less open landscapes. Today, however, many corvids have readily adapted to a life in cities. Seven of these are presented below.
As it is extensively hunted in most of its distribution area, the hooded crow (Corvus corone ssp. cornix) is usually very wary of people, often fleeing at a considerable distance. In many cities, where hunting is banned, crows show little fear of people.
Around the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, crows show no fear at all of people, as these pictures clearly show. In the lower picture, a crow is trying to open a zipper on a baby carriage but must give up. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The house crow (Corvus splendens) is an extremely common bird, living in the Indian Subcontinent, southern Iran, and Myanmar. In later years, however, it has spread to many cities in Asia and Africa, arriving as ‘blind passengers’ on board ships. It is also found in a few coastal towns of Europe and North America.
House crows, resting on a rail around the golden Lawkananda Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
These house crows are inspecting the remains of butchered water buffaloes in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In former days, the large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) was called jungle crow, which included two other crows, which are today treated as separate species, the Indian jungle crow (C. culminatus) and the eastern jungle crow (C. levaillantii). Despite these splits, the large-billed crow still has a very wide distribution, found from Afghanistan in the west, across the Himalaya and Tibet to northern China, south-eastern Siberia, and Taiwan, south through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and the Philippines. In the Indian Subcontinent, it is generally found at higher elevations than the Indian jungle crow. The large-billed crow often lives near human habitation.
Large-billed crow, resting on a house roof in the town of Namche Bazaar, Khumbu, eastern Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
For hundreds of years, the rook (Corvus frugilegus), which breeds in colonies, has been much persecuted, as it was traditionally regarded as a pest which ate crops in the fields. However, it is an established fact that the rook also benefits the farmer through consuming lots of crane fly larvae and other harmful insects. Young rooks are much cherished as food, and lots of young are shot on the nests in spring.
During the last 30 to 40 years, many rooks have been moving from rural areas into towns and cities, where they are secure from hunters. However, they are also persecuted in many of these new breeding areas, as they are noisy and make a mess. As a result, the rook is diminishing in many areas.
Colony of rooks, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rook, near Århus, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The small Eurasian jackdaw (Corvus monedula, also called Coloeus monedula) is ubiquitous in cities all over Europe. It is distributed from southern Finland and Scandinavia south to the Mediterranean, and thence eastwards to Central Asia. In eastern Siberia, Mongolia, and China, it is replaced by a near relative, the Daurian jackdaw (C. dauuricus), which may possibly be a race of the Eurasian jackdaw, as they often interbreed. The specific name monedula is derived from the Ancient Latin moneta (‘coin’), thus named by Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, or Carl von Linné (1707-1778), allegedly because the bird often picks up coins and other shining items.
Jackdaws, feeding on a lawn, Funen, Denmark. The plant with white flowers is common daisy (Bellis perennis). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The Eurasian magpie (Pica pica), divided into ten subspecies, is distributed from western Europe eastwards to Kamchatka, southwards to North Africa, Arabia, the Himalaya, and northern Indochina. Some authorities maintain that four of the subspecies are separate species.
The word pie is of Indo-European origin, meaning ‘pointed’, probably referring to the long, pointed tail. The prefix mag- dates from the 16th Century, a short form of the name Margaret, which was a term used for women in general. The call of the bird was likened to the chattering of women, and so it was called mag-pie. (Source: etymonline.com/word/magpie)
The noisy and garrulous ways of the magpie appear in a passage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the babbling and bumptious daughters of Pieros dare to challenge the Muses in a song contest, which they, naturally, lose, causing them to hurl abuse at the winners. The leading Muse, Calliope, then says:
“Seeing that you deserve punishment enough for your challenge,
And now add profanities to your offence,
And since our patience is not unlimited,
We will move on to sentence you,
And follow where anger prompts us.
The Emathides [daughters of Pieros] laughed and ridiculed these threatening words,
But as they tried to speak, and attack us with insolent hands,
Making a great clamour,
They saw feathers spring from under their nails,
And plumage cover their arms. Each one saw
The next one’s mouth harden to a solid beak,
And a new bird enters the trees.
When they wanted to beat their breasts in sorrow,
They hung in the air, lifted by the movement of their arms,
Magpies now, the slanderers of the woods.
Even now, as birds, their former eloquence remains,
Their raucous garrulity, and their monstrous capacity for chatter.”
Like the hooded crow, the magpie was formerly a shy bird, fleeing from people at a long distance. Today, however, it is a common breeding bird in cities, where, under normal circumstances, people do not constitute a danger to the birds. The three pictures below are all from Copenhagen, Denmark.
Magpie, resting on a gravestone in a Jewish cemetery. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This young magpie is sitting on the rail of a foot bridge across a canal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This magpie nest is built in a silver birch (Betula pendula) with thousands of catkins. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The grey, or Himalayan, treepie (Dendrocitta formosae), is distributed along the foothills of the Himalaya, eastwards through montane areas of northern Indochina and southern China to Taiwan. In Taiwan, however, the nominate subspecies, formosae, lives almost down to sea level. In most areas, this bird is rather shy, but in Taiwan it has become accustomed to people, showing no fear at all.
More photos of this bird may be seen on the page Animals: Birds in Taiwan.
Grey treepie, calling from the top of a street lamp pole, Taichung, Taiwan. (Foto copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This grey treepie is feeding on seeds of a Chinese tallow-tree (Triadica sebifera). – You may study a collection of pictures, depicting the gorgeous winter foliage of this tree, on the page Autumn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The native area of the slender, or green, amaranth (Amaranthus viridis) is unknown, and today it is distributed in all warmer areas of the world. Leaves, as well as seeds, are a source of food in many parts of the world. In Australia, it was eaten during the 19th Century. In 1889, botanist Joseph Maiden (1859-1925) wrote: “It is an excellent substitute for spinach, being far superior to much of the leaves of the white beet sold for spinach in Sydney. Next to spinach it seems to be most like boiled nettle leaves, which when young are used in England, and are excellent. This amarantus should be cooked like spinach, and as it becomes more widely known, it is sure to be popular, except amongst persons who may consider it beneath their dignity to have anything to do with so common a weed.” (Source: T. Low, 1985. Wild Herbs of Australia & New Zealand. Angus & Robertson)
In India, slender amaranth is utilized in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
In Taiwan, where this picture was taken, slender amaranth is very common in cities, especially in fallow areas, and along roads and embankments. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In later years, the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) has declined drastically in large parts of Europe, whereas it is very common in the United States, where it was introduced several times between 1851 and 1875, and in New Zealand, where it was introduced around 1865. In both countries, it was thought that the sparrows would be able to control populations of harmful insects in cereal crops. However, they only catch insects when feeding their young, whereas the rest of the year they eat the very crops they were supposed to protect. However, as early as the 1880s, the sparrow itself was regarded as a pest in New Zealand, and in North America, it is considered a serious crop raider in large parts of the continent.
Male house sparrow, sitting on a roof, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Hand-feeding house sparrows in St. James’ Park, London. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
House sparrows at a roadside restaurant, Muriwai Beach, New Zealand. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A near relative of the house sparrow is the tree sparrow (Passer montanus), which has a huge distribution, from western Europe across Central Asia to Japan, and thence south through Southeast Asia to Indonesia and the Philippines. These pictures are from Taiwan, where the tree sparrow is very common and has taken over the role of the house sparrow as a city bird, as the latter is not found in Taiwan.
A flock of tree sparrows, sitting on plastic tapes on the roof of a greenhouse in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tree sparrows, feeding on seeds of a Chinese tallow-tree (Triadica sebifera), Taichung. – A collection of pictures, depicting the gorgeous winter foliage of this tree, is found on the page Autumn. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This tree sparrow is sitting on a sculpture in a Daoist temple, depicting a dragon, Taichung. – Dragons and Daoism are dealt with in detail on the page Religion: Daoism in Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Virginian peppercress (Lepidium virginicum), also known as least pepperwort, belongs to the mustard family (Brassicaceae). All parts of this plant have a peppery taste, hence its common names. It is a native of North America, from southern Canada south to Mexico, but has been widely introduced to many other countries. It grows in open, drier places, and has readily adapted to a life in cities.
This Virginian peppercress has sprouted in a crack in an abandoned parking lot in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The native area of silver cockscomb (Celosia argentea), also called feathery amaranth, is unknown, and today it is found in most tropical and subtropical areas of the world. It is regarded as an invasive plant in numerous countries, including India, Japan, Ecuador (Galapagos Islands), Fiji, Taiwan, and the United States. It is abundant in Taiwan, also in cities, where it often grows in abandoned plots.
The medicinal properties of silver cockscomb are dealt with on the page Traditional medicine.
Silver cockscomb, growing in an abandoned plot in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. Downy bur-marigold (Bidens pilosa), likewise an invasive species, is also seen. This species is presented elsewhere on this page. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture, silver cockscomb completely covers the bottom of a drainage canal in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Silver cockscomb, growing in an abandoned parking lot, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, the majority of the World’s gulls were breeding in wetlands, and they were rather shy of people. During the last 50 years, however, many gull species have readily adapted to a life in cities, often breeding on house roofs, and eating mainly garbage.
In former days, the herring gull (Larus argentatus) was regarded as being a circumpolar species, divided into a number of subspecies. Today, however, it has been split into several species, and the herring gull proper is restricted to north-western Europe, from Iceland, northern Norway and north-western Russia, southwards along the coasts of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and the Atlantic Sea, to southern France.
The prior subspecies now include the western yellow-legged gull (L. michahellis) (see below), the Caspian gull (L. cachinnans), the Armenian gull (L. armenicus), the Vega gull (L. vegae) (see below), and the American herring gull (L. smithsonianus).
In later years, numbers of European herring gulls have increased significantly in cities, where the birds place their nest on top of high-rise buildings.
Herring gulls, feeding on scraps from a fishing vessel, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This herring gull is waiting for tidbits beside a fisherman, who is gutting fish in the harbour of Kerteminde, Funen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The western yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis) is found in the Mediterranean Sea. This species resembles the widespread herring gull (above), but can be identified by its yellow legs and very powerful beak. It often breeds on house roofs, and if a window is left open, it may enter to search for edibles. It is extremely common in Istanbul, Turkey, where these pictures were taken.
Western yellow-legged gull with chicks in its nest, which is placed on a house roof. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This narcissistic western yellow-legged gull is gazing at its reflection in a window pane. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Western yellow-legged gull, drinking from a fountain, oblivious of the courting couple in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“Get lost! This is my lamp!” (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This western yellow-legged gull has just killed a domestic pigeon and is now eating it on a roof top. It shows a threatening attitude towards an intruding hooded crow (Corvus corone ssp. cornix), which is very interested in the kill. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Previously, the Vega gull (Larus vegae) was treated as a subspecies of the herring gull, but is today regarded as a separate species. It is distributed in north-eastern Siberia, from the Lena River eastwards to the Bering Sea.
Vega gulls, resting on the roof of a shed in Anadyr Airport City, Chukotka Peninsula. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The common gull (Larus canus) resembles the herring gull, but is smaller and has a narrow red eye-ring, and greenish-yellow bill without a red dot. The European and Russian subspecies also have dark eyes. This species has a very wide distribution, from Ireland and Scotland eastwards through the Siberian taiga belt to Alaska and western Canada. It mostly breeds on the ground in coastal regions and lakes, but may occasionally build its nest on roofs or in trees.
A pair of common gulls have established their nest on a building at Alvesta Railway Station, Kronobergs Län, Sweden. In the two lower pictures, the male mates with the female, who remains lying on the nest. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In former days, the small black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) was very common in most of Europe, but has declined drastically during the last 30 to 40 years. It often breeds in city parks, but not on roofs or in trees.
Black-headed gulls, resting on a pleasure boat in a harbour in central Jutland, Denmark. The bird in front is wearing a numbered plastic ring. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Vegetation at a sewage outlet, Taichung, Taiwan. The plant with large leaves is Japanese dock (Rumex japonicus), the one with white flowers is downy bur-marigold (Bidens pilosa), and the one with yellow flowers is Mexican primrose-willowherb (Ludwigia octovalvis). – The latter two species are presented elsewhere on this page. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is ubiquitous in Europe, including in cities, where it readily grows in cracks and between flagstones. – This species is dealt with in detail on the page Plants: Plants in folklore and poetry.
In both these pictures from Copenhagen, Denmark, dandelion grows along streets, outside the Carlsberg Breweries (top), and among wood chips. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Large-leaved fig (Ficus superba) belongs to a group of fig trees, called strangler figs. Most seeds of these trees begin their life as an epiphyte in a tree, the seed often sprouting in a pile of bird dung, delivered by the bird which ate the fig fruit. Over the years, aerial roots of the young strangler fig grow down to the ground, where they take root, while other roots wrap themselves around the host tree, over time completely enveloping the tree, which is eventually strangled to death. As the trunk of the host tree decays, it leaves the fig tree as a hollow cylinder of aerial roots.
Large-leaved fig also readily grows on buildings, and it is able to thrive as a normal free-standing tree, too. This species is distributed in China, Taiwan, Japan, and parts of Southeast Asia, south to Indonesia.
Other fig trees are presented on the page Plants: Ancient and huge trees.
Aerial roots of a giant large-leaved fig, climbing over the remains of a former warehouse of Tait & Co., in the town of Anping, Taiwan. Today, the building is called Anping Tree House. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture, likewise from the Anping Tree House, sunshine is reflected as the colours of the rainbow in a spider’s web. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The origin of peacock-plume grass (Chloris barbata), also called purple top or swollen fingergrass, is uncertain. Some authorities maintain that it is native to Tropical America, others claim that it is indigenous in Tropical Africa. Whatever its origin may be, it has been accidentally introduced to most warmer parts of the world and is regarded as an invasive in a number of countries, including Australia, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, and India.
This species is a common weed in sugarcane and rice fields, which is a serious problem, as it is a host of a number of rice insect pests, including white-backed planthoppers (Sogatella furcifera and Sogatodes pusanus), rice bug (Leptocorisa oratorius), rice ear-cutting caterpillar (Mythimna separata), cereal thrips (Haplothrips ganglbaurei and Chirothrips mexicanus), and others.
Lantern tridax (Tridax procumbens), of the daisy family (Asteraceae), is native to Tropical America. Like peacock-plume grass, it has been spread to most warmer areas of the world and has become naturalized in many places.
Peacock-plume grass and lantern tridax are both very common in Asiatic cities. In this picture, they grow together along a street in the town of Ubud, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A tuft of peacock-plume grass has taken root in a crack in the asphalt in an abandoned parking lot in Taichung, Taiwan (top). The bottom picture shows its spikes, moving in the wind. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture, several specimens of peacock-plume grass are growing up a house wall in Taichung, Taiwan. The wind has moved the inflorescences back and forth, scraping dirt and paint off the wall in semi-circles. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Large growth of lantern tridax in an abandoned parking lot, Taichung, Taiwan. This species is extremely common in Taiwanese cities. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
There are altogether eleven subspecies of the white wagtail (Motacilla alba), breeding from East Greenland in the west to Alaska in the east, and south to Morocco, Iran, the Himalaya, and Taiwan. The nominate race, alba, is found in eastern Greenland, Iceland, and the entire Europe, apart from the British Isles, and further east, almost to the Ural Mountains. In the British Isles, it is replaced by the race yarrellii, in Morocco by subpersonata, and in the Ural Mountains, south to the Caspian Sea, by dukhunensis. In Siberia and western Alaska, the race ocularis is breeding, in Iran persica, in the western part of Central Asia personata, in Central Asia baicalensis, in the Himalaya alboides, in China, Korea and Taiwan leucopsis, and in Japan, Sakhalin and Kamchatka lugens. Many of the northern races are migratory, while the southernmost are resident. This species is confiding, often breeding in buildings.
Male of the nominate race of white wagtail, ssp. alba, photographed on the island of Christiansø, Bornholm, Denmark. Red roof tiles are seen in the background. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male of the nominate race, sitting on the roof of a lighthouse building at the northern tip of Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Amur wagtail, ssp. leucopsis, sitting on a concrete wall along a river in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male Himalayan wagtail, ssp. alboides, sitting on a dilapidated wall in Hutiao Xia (Tiger Leaping Gorge), Jinsha River, Yunnan Province, China. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Male masked wagtail, ssp. personata, stretching a wing on a boat, Phewa Lake, Pokhara, Nepal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The railroad creeper (Ipomoea cairica), also called coast morning-glory or mile-a-minute vine, is believed to be a native of Tropical Africa, but today it has a very wide distribution in tropical and subtropical areas around the world. This species is capable of very rapid growth, sometimes completely entwining trees and bushes, but it is also able to creep along the ground. It is regarded as an invasive in many areas, including eastern Australia, southern China, and Taiwan.
These pictures are all from Taiwan, where railroad creeper is extremely common. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Obscure morning-glory (Ipomoea obscura), also called small white morning-glory, can be identified by its small, heart-shaped leaves and the 2-3 cm wide, white flowers with a brownish throat. This species is native to the southern half of Africa, tropical Asia, northern Australia, and some Pacific Islands, including Fiji, and has been introduced elsewhere as an ornamental, or accidentally.
Other members of the morning-glory family are presented on the page Plants: Morning-glories and bindweeds.
Obscure morning-glory is quite common in Taiwan. This one is climbing along barbwire in the city of Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This ‘long-term’ parked car in the city of Taichung, Taiwan, has been overgrown by various plants, including obscure morning-glory, and also a climber of the pea family with chocolate-brown flowers, and downy bur-marigold (Bidens pilosa), an invasive species, which is abundant in Taiwan (the plant with white ray-florets). The latter is presented elsewhere on this page. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Sumacs (Rhus) is a genus of c. 35 species of the cashew, or sumac, family (Anacardiaceae), distributed in subtropical and temperate areas, especially around the Mediterranean, and in Asia, Australia, and North America. Many other species, which were formerly placed in Rhus, have now been transferred to the genus Searsia, others to Toxicodendron (poison ivy and poison oak, see Nature: Autumn).
The word sumac is derived from Ancient Syriac summaq (‘red’), referring to the red fruits of the genus. They have an acrid taste and are used as a spice. In North America, the fruits of staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) are soaked in cold water to make ‘pink lemonade’, a refreshing beverage, rich in vitamin C.
Elm-leaved sumac (Rhus coriaria), also called tanner’s sumac or Sicilian sumac, is native to the Mediterranean, eastwards to Iran. The dried fruits are crushed and used as a spice, which, together with other spices, form a mixture called za’atar. Leaves and bark contain tannic acid and were formerly used in leather tanning, hence the specific name, of the Latin coriarium (‘leather’, ‘tanning’). Various parts of the plant yield dyes of red, yellow, black, and brown. Oil from the seeds are utilized to make candles.
Elm-leaved sumac is very common in Turkey. This one has taken root on the wall of an abandoned house in Sultanahmet, Istanbul. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Barren brome (Bromus sterilis), also called poverty brome or sterile brome, is a very common grass species, native to the major part of Europe, North Africa, and Asia, eastwards to Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It grows in a wide variety of open habitats, including waste areas, roadsides, and gardens.
Barren brome often grows in cities, here photographed next to a red house wall in the town of Svaneke, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The smallish black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) is found in most warmer parts of the world, except in Australia, where it is replaced by the closely related rufous night-heron (N. caledonicus). The generic name Nycticorax means ‘night raven’, from the Greek nuktos (‘night’) and korax (‘raven’), referring to the mainly nocturnal feeding habits of this genus, and their hoarse, raven-like call.
In Taiwan, the black-crowned night-heron is quite common and often confiding. This adult bird is sitting on a wall along a sewage canal in the city of Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Immature black-crowned night-heron, feeding in a sewage canal, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The castor oil plant (Ricinus communis), which is probably indigenous to the Middle East and north-eastern Africa, has been widely cultivated elsewhere for thousands of years. Today, it is a widespread weed in almost all tropical and subtropical countries.
The generic name Ricinus is Latin, meaning ‘tick’, referring to the seed, which resembles certain species of ticks. Another common name of this plant is Palm of Christ, which refers to the ability of its oil to heal wounds and cure various ailments.
The medical properties of castor oil plant are described on the page Traditional medicine.
The castor oil plant is extremely common in the lowlands of Taiwan, also in cities. This one, with ripe fruits, grows in an abandoned plot in Taichung (top), while one, with red female flowers above and white male flowers below, has taken root in a crack along a rainwater drainage canal, likewise in Taichung (bottom). (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Formerly, the house swift (Apus nipalensis) was considered a subspecies of little swift (A. affinis), but is now regarded as a separate species, distributed from Nepal eastwards to Japan, and thence south through Southeast Asia to Indonesia.
Colonies of house swift on a residential building, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Shepherd’s-purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris), which is a native of western Asia and Europe, has become naturalized almost worldwide in temperate and subtropical areas. It is also called shepherd’s bag, shepherd’s scrip, shepherd’s sprout, lady’s purse, witches’ pouches, rattle pouches, case-weed, pick-pocket, pick-purse, blindweed, pepper-and-salt, poor man’s pharmacettie, and mother’s heart. Most of these names, as well as the specific name, refer to the shape of the fruits, or siliques, which are flat and triangular, resembling an old-fashioned bag or purse.
An Irish name of the species, clappedepouch, refers to the long-stalked siliques. This name was given in allusion to the begging of lepers, who would ring a bell, or a clapper, receiving their alms in a cup at the end of a long pole, to avoid people being infected.
Read about medical usage of this species on the page Traditional medicine.
Shepherd’s-purse, growing in a crack along a sidewalk in Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Large growth of shepherd’s-purse in Tunghai University Park, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In severe winters, many starving water birds gather in harbours, where conditions are often less harsh than in open areas. This woman in Lausanne, Switzerland, is feeding various bird species, such as mute swans (Cygnus olor), coots (Fulica atra), tufted ducks (Aythya fuligula), black-headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), and feral pigeons (Columba livia). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Four yellow-flowered members of the composite family (Asteraceae) are common in East Asian cities. Three of these species, which are native to eastern Asia, are quite similar, having small flowerheads and more or less flat leaves, while the fourth is easily recognized by its large, thistle-like leaves.
The stem of Oriental false hawksbeard (Youngia japonica), also called Japanese hawksbeard, is usually tall, erect, and unbranched, with numerous small flowerheads at the top. Its basal leaves are quite broad, more or less hairy, and mostly deeply lobed or pinnately divided. The flowerheads are up to 8 mm across. Today, this species has spread to most warmer areas of the world.
In Taiwan, Oriental false hawksbeard tends to grow under tree cover, and in cities it is mostly found in parks, like these, forming a large growth in Tunghai University Park, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rabbit milkweed (Ixeris chinensis) can be identified by its mostly linear, rather narrow leaves and pale yellow flowerheads, which are up to 2 cm across. This species is very common in all types of open areas, such as grasslands, forest margins, shrublands, riverbanks, field margins, wastelands, and roadsides.
Rabbit milkweed, growing along a house wall (top) and along a sidewalk, both in Taichung. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The basal leaves of Ixeridium laevigatum are very variable, mostly with rather large lobes, but sometimes being almost entire, while the stem leaves are mostly linear and rather narrow. The flowerheads are up to 1 cm across. In Taiwan, this species is very common in urban areas.
Ixeridium laevigatum, growing beneath a tree on a sidewalk in Taichung, together with a species of mugwort (Artemisia). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common sow-thistle (Sonchus oleraceus) is native to Europe and western Asia, but has spread to most other areas of the world. It is regarded as an invasive plant in many countries, including Australia, where it is a serious problem in crops. It is easily identified by its slightly prickly, deeply divided leaves.
The generic name is a Latinized form of the Greek word sonchos, the ancient name for sow-thistles, while oleraceus is from the Latin oleris, meaning ‘edible’. Young leaves can be eaten as salad or cooked like spinach. The common name refers to the fact that pigs like to eat this plant, and to the leaves, which resemble young thistle leaves.
Common sow-thistle, growing in a city park in Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This common sow-thistle has taken root along a house wall in the town of Rønne, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Hinduism, Rama is the seventh incarnation of the supreme god Vishnu, and main character in the great epic Ramayana. One day, his fiancée, Sita, is abducted by Ravana, a demon king from Sri Lanka. Hanuman, who is the leader of the monkey army, is a great help to Rama in his struggle to liberate Sita. As a reward for his services, Hanuman was raised to become a Hindu deity.
Due to the great deeds performed by the monkey army in the Ramayana, monkeys are considered sacred among Hindus, and troops of rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta), bonnet macaques (Macaca radiata), or grey langurs (Semnopithecus) often live around temples, where part of their diet consists of rice, sweets, or other edibles, brought as offerings by devout Hindus. They also roam the cities in search of food, often being a pest to street vendors, who sell vegetables and fruit.
Numerous other species of monkeys and apes, as well as a more detailed account of the role of Hanuman in the Ramayana, are presented on the page Animals: Monkeys and apes.
Like a bunch of street urchins, these southern plains langurs (Semnopithecus dussumieri) are sitting on a roof top in the city of Pushkar, Rajasthan, India, from where they survey the surroundings for fruit or other edibles to steal (top). The bottom picture shows langurs, resting in a pavilion near the sacred lake in Pushkar. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The rhesus monkey (Macaca mulatta) is found in a wide variety of habitats in the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent and in Myanmar, including cities, where it is often very common.
This rhesus monkey is walking along a narrow wall, surrounding the Hawa Mahal Palace in Jaipur, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Rhesus monkey, sitting on a balcony in front of a residential home in Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This rhesus monkey jumps from one house wall to another, likewise in Varanasi. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In South Indian cities, the bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) takes over the role of the North Indian rhesus monkey, especially around Hindu temples, where they eat offerings of rice and flowers.
In temples, bonnet macaques often become obese, as this one, resting on a sculpture of an elephant in the Sri Minakshi Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This street performer in the city of Tirumalai, Andhra Pradesh, has caught two young bonnet macaques, training them to perform. They seem to be arguing about something. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The generic name of thrift (Armeria maritima) is probably of Celtic stock, from ar (’near’) and mor (’sea’). In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Notes on the Gallic War’), Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 B.C.) mentions an area between the rivers Seine and Loire, which he calls Aremorica. Presumably, thrift was growing here. The Old French name of the plant, armoires, became Latinized as armerios in 1537, later as Armeria. (Source: Corneliuson, J. 1997. Växternas namn. Vetenskapliga växtnamns etymologi. Språkligt ursprung och kulturell bakgrund. (‘Etymology of plant names’, in Swedish)
The specific name, from the Latin mare (’sea’), informs us that thrift is a seashore plant. However, following the introduction of salt-strewing on snow-covered roads in northern Europe, this species has spread inland, where it is now common along roads, even in cities.
In the old days, when sweets were not everyday treats like today, children would suck out nectar from flowers of thrift – or simple eat the entire inflorescence.
Thrift, growing in a crack in a sidewalk, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The potato tree (Solanum erianthum), a species of nightshade, is a native of North and Central America, but has been introduced to numerous other countries, in many areas considered an ‘environmental weed’. It is very common in Taiwanese cities, often growing on vacant lots, and in cracks along house walls and water courses.
Potato tree, photographed in an abandoned house plot in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The great crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) is a water bird with a very wide distribution, found from the British Isles and the Mediterranean, across temperate regions of Eurasia eastwards to China. Furthermore, it has isolated populations in southern Africa and Australia.
The great crested grebe has adapted to a life in harbours, as this one in Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Red sand-spurrey (Spergularia rubra) and procumbent pearlwort (Sagina procumbens) are small plants of the pink family (Caryophyllaceae). Both species are native to Europe and Northern Asia, but have been accidentally spread to many other parts of the world. They are common weeds in fallow fields and along roads, and both have adapted to a life in cities.
In this picture from the town of Gudhjem, Bornholm, Denmark, red sand-spurrey (left) and procumbent pearlwort grow in a crack on a sidewalk. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Previously, the wood pigeon (Columba palumbus) was a shy forest bird, but in later years it has adapted to a life in cities, where it is now very common. This species is found all over Europe, the Middle East, and Morocco, with isolated populations in Central Asia and the western part of the Himalaya.
This wood pigeon is sitting on a house chimney on the island of Fanø, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The wood pigeon may be identified by the white patches on the hindneck and wings. This one takes off from a pole near Säby Läge, Öland, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Many species of cockroaches have adapted to a life in cities, where they are often an immense nuisance. Read about their usage in Chinese folk medicine on the page Traditional medicine.
Cockroaches prefer humid surroundings. This one was photographed in a bathroom in the town of Bontoc, northern Luzon, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The long-headed poppy (Papaver dubium) is very common all over Europe, where it mostly grows along roads and in fallow fields. More pictures of this species, and many other poppies, may be seen on the page In praise of the colour red.
This long-headed poppy has rooted in a crack along a house wall, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black rat (Rattus rattus) originated in Asia, probably India or Southeast Asia. Later, it spread to the Near East and Egypt, and then throughout the Roman Empire. Research indicates that it reached Britain as early as the 1st Century A.D., and when Europeans began emigrating, it was spread to almost all parts of the world.
Formerly, the black rat was a serious pest, consuming huge amounts of cereals and other food items. Furthermore, it spread various diseases among humans. During the Middle Ages, rat fleas were carrying bubonic plague, which in some places reduced the human population by 50 to 75%. This much feared disease was aptly named The Black Death.
The brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) spread throughout the world at a later stage than the black rat. It is a much stronger and more adaptable species, and the black rat has now been expelled from many of its former strongholds by its more aggressive sister species
In the town of Deshnok, Rajasthan, north-western India, a local goddess, Karna Mata, is regarded as an incarnation of the great Hindu goddess Durga (see Religion: Hinduism). Her followers believe that if you are reborn as a rat, you escape the wrath of Yama, the God of Death. For this reason, rats are sacred, and pilgrims feed them in temples.
Pilgrims, feeding a horde of black rats in the Karna Mata Mandir Temple, Deshnok. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The spotted, or pearl-necked dove (Spilopelia chinensis), is a pretty bird, distinguished by its pearl-like white spots on black background on the side of the neck. Formerly, it was included in the genus Streptopelia (turtle doves), but studies on vocalization, together with DNA analyses, led to the conclusion, that this species and its near relative, the laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis, see below), differed sufficiently from the other Streptopelia species to form a separate genus.
The spotted dove is widely distributed in Asia, from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to China and Taiwan, thence south through the Philippines and Southeast Asia to Indonesia.
The spotted dove is very common in Taiwan, also in cities. In this picture, a pair is sitting on the rail of an apartment balcony in a skyscraper in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The small laughing dove (Spilopelia senegalensis) is widely distributed, found in much of northern Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Middle East, eastwards to India. It is also found in Cyprus. In 1889, it was introduced to also in western Australia, where populations have been established in several locations. It lives in a variety of habitats, including semi-desert, scrubland, agricultural areas, and cities.
Other names include palm dove and Senegal dove, and in India it is known as little brown dove. The name laughing dove stems from its characteristic cooing, a low, drawn-out croo-doo-doo-doo-doo, somewhat reminiscent of a laughter. As mentioned above (see spotted dove), its generic name has been changed from Streptopelia to Spilopelia.
In Dubai, where this picture was taken, laughing dove is a common city bird, showing no fear at all of passing pedestrians. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
“That dove would make a perfect lunch!” – This cat was lying in wait for a laughing dove in Istanbul, Turkey, but missed it. The laughing dove is very common in this city. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Due to its pretty flowers and vigorous growth, ivy-leaved toadflax (Cymbalaria muralis), which is a native to the Mediterranean, has been introduced to many parts of the world as an ornamental. In some areas, however, it has escaped cultivation and has become an invasive.
Ivy-leaved toadflax, growing on a stone wall, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Geckos of the genus Hemidactylus are often called house geckos, as many of the species have adapted to a life inside houses. They are native to most tropical areas of the world, and a few species are also found in subtropical parts of Europe and Africa. Presently, about 90 species are known, with new species being described every few years.
House gecko, sitting on a house wall, Bali, Indonesia. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Greater plantain (Plantago major) is native to Europe and Temperate Asia, but has been introduced to many parts of the world, often becoming naturalized. When the Europeans emigrated to North America, the sticky seeds of this species often stuck to wagon wheels and were spread, wherever the immigrants went. This was noticed by the indigenous peoples, who called it ‘white man’s footprint’.
Greater plantain, growing in a crack along a gutter, Jutland, Denmark. The red object is a rose petal. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The grey heron (Ardea cinerea) is distributed in most of Asia, Europe, Africa, and Madagascar. Formerly, this species was a very shy bird, but in later years it has adapted to a life in cities. In America, it is replaced by the similar, slightly larger great blue heron (A. herodias).
More pictures of grey heron are shown on the pages Fishing, and Animals: Birds in Taiwan, while the great blue heron is presented at: In praise of the colour blue.
This grey heron was encountered in the harbour of Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Angled luffa (Luffa acutangula), also called ridged gourd, sponge gourd and many other names, is a native of Tropical Asia, where it is also widely cultivated. Young fruits are cooked as a vegetable, or pickled, while the fibres inside mature fruits are used as a sponge or for making hats. The species is also utilized in traditional folk medicine. The seeds are emetic and purgative, and they are eaten to expel intestinal worms. Fruit and seeds are also used in treatment of venereal diseases, especially gonorrhea.
From vegetable gardens in the city of Taichung, Taiwan, these cultivated angled luffas have climbed up fences. In the lower picture, several plants have climbed so high, that they could not be harvested, allowing them to produce mature fruits and spread their seeds. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Disc mayweed (Matricaria discoidea) is native to North America and north-eastern Asia, south to Hokkaido, Japan. Today, however, it has been accidentally introduced to most other areas of the world, where it is a common weed, growing in open areas. Other names of the plant are wild chamomile and pineapple weed, due to its chamomile- or pineapple-like smell, when crushed.
Disc mayweed, growing in a crack along a gutter, Jutland, Denmark. The white object is a bird feather. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common storksbill (Erodium cicutarium) is native to Europe, North Africa, and parts of Temperate Asia, but has been accidentally introduced to many parts of the world, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Chile. In many places, it is considered a noxious weed, as it is most proliferate, readily outcompeting native plant species and crops. The ripe fruit splits into five segments, each with a long, spirally twisting style, with a seed attached at the base. As the style twists, it is able to drill the seed into the soil.
Common storksbill, growing at a house wall, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Grass, finding its way through an opening in a discarded car, where the rear light glass is missing, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris) is native to most of Temperate Europe and Asia, North Africa, and Alaska. In other areas of North America, it has become naturalized. Originally, this species was a species of grasslands and sandy beaches, but it readily spreads to fields, where it is a noxious weed. In China, it is used as a substitute for Artemisia argyii to make moxa, which is much utilized as a healer in traditional Chinese medicine.
In this picture, common mugwort grows near a canal in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In 1984, the mute swan (Cygnus olor) was elected the national bird of Denmark – an appropriate choice, as it is very common. This was not always the case. In the 1800s, swans were hunted in Denmark, and by 1920, only three or four pairs were breeding in the vicinity of Copenhagen. Swans were protected in 1926, and the mute swan soon began spreading across the country.
In his fairy tale The Ugly Duckling, Danish poet Hans Christian Andersen relates the fate of a cygnet, which is ostracized by its fellow fowl in a farmyard, where it has been hatched together with ducklings. It has to undergo much suffering, before it realizes that it has matured into a beautiful swan. In reality, this story is about the fate of Andersen himself.
The mute swan is native to northern Europe, from southern Norway and southern Finland, southwards to southern France and Romania, and from Ireland eastwards to western Russia and Ukraine, and with patchy breeding occurrence in the Balkans, Turkey, and Central Asia, eastwards to southern Siberia, Mongolia, and northern China. It has also been introduced elsewhere, including North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
As opposed to the other northern European swans, the whooper swan (C. cygnus) and Bewick’s swan (C. columbianus ssp. bewickii), the mute swan is not very vocal, hence the appellation mute. The name Cygnus is a Latinized form of the Greek kyknos (‘swan’), whereas olor is Latin, also meaning ‘swan’.
Some pairs of mute swans build their nest in the most unlikely places. In these pictures, they have occupied pontoons in a canal in Copenhagen, oblivious of passing people or tourist boats. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The greylag goose (Anser anser) is widely distributed across northern Eurasia, from Iceland and Britain across northern Europe and Central Asia to northern China, with a scattered occurrence in south-eastern Europe, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. In many countries, the species is now breeding in city parks, where it often becomes remarkably confiding – sometimes even showing a threatening attitude towards people.
In some places, including North America and Australia, domestic geese – which are descended from greylag geese – have escaped to form feral populations.
Child, feeding greylag geese between bars in a fence, surrounding St. James’ Park, London. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
When they have goslings, greylag geese are often so bold that they sometimes threaten passing people. This male goose in a city park in Copenhagen, Denmark, is hissing at me because of its goslings in the foreground, but is itself being threatened by a male mute swan (Cygnus olor). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
A species of sagebrush (Artemisia), growing along a busy street, Taichung, Taiwan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Red fescue (Festuca rubra) is a species of grass, which is widespread across much of the Northern Hemisphere, mainly in temperate areas. It is a very adaptable species, which can grow in most open habitats, including beaches and dunes.
Red fescue has also adapted to a life in cities, as this group, growing along a water front at Lake Mälaren, central Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The light-vented, or Chinese, bulbul (Pycnonotus sinensis) is distributed from central China southwards to Vietnam, and eastwards to Japan and Taiwan. This species is one of the commonest birds in Taiwan, living in a wide variety of habitats, such as secondary forest, farmland, parks, gardens, and even city areas with scant vegetation.
Read more about this species and other bulbuls on the page Animals: Birds in Taiwan.
Light-vented bulbul, surveying its surroundings from the top of a white leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala), Taichung, Taiwan. – This tree is presented on the page Nature: Invasive species. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This light-vented bulbul is enjoying the morning sun, sitting on the rail of a balcony in Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Balloon vine (Cardiospermum halicacabum), also called heart pea or love-in-a-puff, is a climber, easily recognized by its swollen fruits. Its tiny seeds are black with a white spot, shaped like a heart, hence its generic name, as well as the common name heart pea. This species is widely distributed in tropical and subtropical Africa and Asia, and has also become naturalized in many other parts of the world. In New Zealand, where it is considered a pest, trading of its seeds is prohibited.
The medical usage of balloon vine is described on the page Traditional medicine.
Balloon vine, clinging to barbwire in Taiwan, where this species is very common. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In cities, especially city parks, squirrels often become very tame. These pictures show three examples.
The eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) is the most widespread squirrel in North America, but has also been successfully introduced to South Africa, Britain, and other places. In Britain, it has become a pest, as it competes with the native European red squirrel (S. vulgaris), which is now scarce south of Scotland.
This squirrel, as well as many other North American squirrels, are presented in detail on the page Animals: Squirrels of North America.
This man is feeding an eastern grey squirrel, as well as feral pigeons, in Kew Botanical Gardens, London. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The commonest squirrel in Taiwan, which is ubiquitous in the lowland, is the aptly named Taiwan squirrel (Callosciurus erythraeus ssp. taiwanensis). It is a subspecies of the widespread red-bellied squirrel, which is found in China, Southeast Asia, and north-eastern India.
Near the Confucius Temple in the city of Tainan, southern Taiwan, people are feeding birds, causing the otherwise rather shy Taiwan squirrels to have become remarkably tame. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This Taiwan squirrel is eating bark of a blackboard tree (Alstonia scholaris), Tunghai University Park, Taichung. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The five-striped palm-squirrel (Funambulus pennantii) is native to south-eastern Iran and to the Indian Subcontinent, south to the state of Karnataka. It is very common in North Indian cities, even metropoles like Delhi and Kolkata. It has also been introduced to New Guinea and to many Pacific islands, and a population is found in Australia, in the city of Perth, established from zoo escapes.
The five-striped palm-squirrel is ubiquitous in North Indian cities. This picture is from Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The colourful Asian pied starling, or pied myna (Gracupica contra, formerly Sturnus contra), is a bird of the northern part of the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia. This species lives mainly in lowland, but may be found up to an altitude of c. 700 m. In later years, it has been expanding and is now found in Pakistan, Sumatra, and Dubai, U.A.E., the population in the latter country established from escaped cage birds.
Asian pied starling, feeding among washed-up marigold garlands, which have been brought as an offering to the sacred Ganges River, Varanasi, India. – Read more about the Ganges River on the page Religion: Hinduism. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In Dubai, where this picture was taken, Asian pied starling has established a population from escaped cage birds. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Another member of the starling family, the bank myna (Acridotheres ginginianus), is restricted to the Indian Subcontinent, from the Indus Valley eastwards to the Ganges delta, and from the foothills of the Himalaya, southwards almost to the southern tip of India. The original habitat of this bird was open country, but it has adapted to a life in cities, where it is often observed along rivers, in markets, in railway stations, and even in airports. It has been introduced elsewhere and has formed feral populations a number of places, including Kuwait, the Maldives, Taiwan, and Japan.
The pictures below were all taken on the banks of the Ganges River, Varanasi.
The bank myna is similar to the common myna (Acridotheres tristis), but is a bit smaller, its plumage is more greyish, and the bare skin around the eye is orange rather than yellow. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Note the tiny bells around the leg of the bird to the left, showing that it has escaped from captivity. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
This bank myna is preening by taking ants in its bill, gleaning its feathers with them. Presumably, the purpose of this behaviour is to kill pests with the formic acid. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The stonecrop, or orpine family, Crassulaceae, which includes stonecrops (Sedum) and roseroots (Rhodiola), among other genera, are characterized by plants with succulent leaves – an adaptation to growing in dry areas with little water. This family, which includes c. 35 genera with about 1,400 species, is found worldwide, with the greatest diversity in the Northern Hemisphere and in southern Africa.
Stonecrops (Sedum) are creeping plants, which grow in dry areas, such as in sand, among scree, or on rocks. This genus, counting about 470 species, is mainly distributed in the Northern Hemisphere, but is also found in southern Africa and in South America.
Biting stonecrop (Sedum acre), growing in a crack between granite steps in the town of Rønne, Bornholm, Denmark. This species is named after the bitter, peppery taste of its leaves, caused by their content of slightly toxic alkaloids. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Common mallow (Malva sylvestris) is a native of Temperate Asia, Europe, and North Africa. It has been introduced to many countries as an ornamental and has become naturalized many places, including Australia, the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
In this picture, common mallow grows on a graveyard wall next to Nylars Church, Bornholm, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Paper mulberry (Broussonetia papyrifera) is a small tree of the fig family (Moraceae), native to East and South Asia and possibly to some Pacific islands. This species thrives in a wide range of habitats and climates, readily growing in disturbed areas. It is dioecious, and when male and female plants grow together, and seeds are produced, it spreads rapidly. Birds and other animals eat the fruits and thus help dispersing the species. It can also form dense stands via its spreading root system.
As its name implies, fibres of paper mulberry were formerly utilized to produce paper, and in parts of the Pacific, cloth is still made from the bark. The wood is used for making furniture and utensils, and the roots can be used as rope. The orange fruit is fleshy and edible, and the leaves can also be eaten when cooked. Fruit, leaves, and bark were formerly used in traditional medicine.
In the United States, paper mulberry was introduced as a fast-growing shade tree, but due to its vigorous growth it soon began to displace native species, and today it is considered to be an invasive in the south-eastern states. In Pakistan, it is regarded as one of the worst weeds, and it is a highly significant invasive plant on the pampas of Argentina. It is also one of the most dominant invasive species in forests of Ghana and Uganda.
Paper mulberry is very common in Taiwanese cities, popping up in cracks everywhere. These pictures are from the city of Taichung. In the centre picture, it grows near a playground. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The black Eurasian coot (Fulica atra) is a member of the large family Rallidae, comprising coots, gallinules, rails, crakes, and many others. As a breeding bird, it is widely distributed across Temperate Eurasia, eastwards to Japan, and in north-western Africa, the Indian Subcontinent, New Guinea, and Australia. Siberian populations are migratory, while African, Indian, Australian, and most European birds are resident. Very similar species are found in the Iberian Peninsula, Africa, the Americas, and Hawaii.
In many places, the Eurasian coot has adapted to a life in cities. This bird in Enkhuizen, West-Friesland, Holland, has built a nest in a canal, made from twigs, water plants, and plastic bags. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Marsh cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum), also called brown cudweed, is native to Europe and northern Asia, and it has been accidentally introduced in North America, where it is found in the northern half of the continent. The natural habitat of this plant is humid areas, such as water-logged fields, but it is also able to thrive in drier areas, including city streets. In Russia, it has been used in folk medicine to treat high blood pressure.
Marsh cudweed (the greyish-green plants), growing together with greater plantain (Plantago major) and annual meadow-grass (Poa annua) among cobble stones on a sidewalk, Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
The tokay gecko (Gekko gecko) is found from the Indian Subcontinent eastwards to Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Melanesia. In the United States, it has been introduced to the Florida Keys, where it has become invasive. It is easily identified by its loud call, rendered as geck-oo or tuc-too.
In Chinese medicine, tokay geckos are used for various ailments and diseases, including stroke, paralysis, arthritis, impotence, premature ejaculation, frequent urination, nocturnal urination, and emaciation. New research has shown that it has a positive effect on malignant tumours, especially in the digestive system. Today, the species is threatened due to over-collection and habitat loss.
Formerly, in China, a number of superstitions were related to the tokay gecko. It was believed that its urine was deadly poisonous. If a pregnant woman consumed it, she was certain to deliver a boy. As tokay geckos mate for a very long time, it was believed that consuming them would cure impotency.
In Southeast Asia, the tokay gecko is often encountered in houses, as in this picture from the island of Mindoro, Philippines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Downy bur-marigold (Bidens pilosa) is a pan-tropical and -subtropical weed of unknown origin, which has become a pest in many places, expelling native species. One isolated plant can produce over 30,000 hooked seeds, which are readily spread by sticking to animals’ furs, socks, trousers, etc. This way of seed dispersal has given it names like beggar-ticks, stickseed, farmer’s friend (ironic!), needle grass, Spanish needles, stick-tight, cobbler’s pegs, Devil’s needles, and Devil’s pitchfork. Other names include blackjack and hairy bidens.
A South African website, farmersweekly.co.za/animals/horses/beware-those-blackjacks, says: “The common blackjack is not only an irritant to horses, (but) can cause them injury. (…) There can be few of us who have not spent ages picking them off our clothes after walking through the veld to catch horses in the early winter. Blackjacks that become entangled in the forelock of a horse can be a great irritant, and the animal will toss its head, if you try to remove them. The spines can injure the eyes, so it’s better to clip the forelocks short. Blackjacks can also get caught up in the long hair behind the fetlocks and pasterns, causing chronic irritation and lameness.”
This species is reported to be a weed of 31 crops in more than 40 countries, Latin America and eastern Africa having the worst infestations. (Source: cabi.org/isc/datasheet/9148)
However, downy bur-marigold is not only a troublesome weed, but also has medicinal properties. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is used for a large number of ailments, including influenza, colds, fever, sore throat, appendicitis, hepatitis, malaria, and haemorrhoids. Due to its high content of fiber, it is beneficial to the cardiovascular system, and it has been used with success in treatment of diabetes.
These pictures are all from Taiwan, where downy bur-marigold is extremely common, often covering huge areas. In the upper picture, it grows in a sewage canal. The bottom picture shows a plant, which has taken root between two road dividers. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Wall barley (Hordeum murinum), also called false barley, is native to Europe, North Africa, and western Asia.
Wall barley has readily adapted to a life in cities. In these two pictures from Denmark, its pale spikes stand out against house walls in the village of Jyllinge, Zealand (top), and in the town of Rønne, Bornholm. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
As far back as Ancient Rome, and throughout the Middle Ages, young leaves of goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria) were utilized as a vegetable, much as spinach was used. The generic name is from the Greek aix, genitive aigos (’goat’), and podion, diminutive of pous (’foot’), thus ‘little goat-foot’), referring to the shape of the leaves. According to the Doctrine of Signatures, Our Lord had shaped the plants, so that humans were able to discover what ailments they could be used for. Therefore, goutweed must be an effective remedy for gout. Medicinally, however, there is no basis for this assertion. It was also used as a laxative.
Goutweed is native to southern Europe and western Asia, but was introduced as a garden plant to northern Europe as early as the Middle Ages. It has also been accidentally introduced to North America, and almost everywhere it has become a most annoying garden weed.
In this picture, goutweed is growing out through a beech hedge alongside a pavement. – Jutland, Denmark. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
(Uploaded June 2016)
(Latest update October 2019)