Sharing urban worlds with parakeets: The more-than-human city of Heidelberg

  • Shuhei Tashiro , 1 feb 2022, 9 Min. de lectura

Sharing urban worlds with parakeets: The more-than-human city of Heidelberg

Actualizado: 13 abr 2022

Shuhei Tashiro

March 2022

This blog entry serves as the final outcome of my course project in the joint seminar, “Tracing the Urban Everyday in South Asia,” at Heidelberg University in 2021-22.

Heidelberg is the center of life for around 160,000 people. The citizens of Heidelberg appreciate not only the world-famous beauty and scenic location of the Neckar city in the middle of the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region, but above all its quality of life. Heidelberg is a city of science and culture. It is particularly attractive for families, students, creative people and entrepreneurs from business, science and research. Those who live in Heidelberg have a home: a remarkable 97 percent of all Heidelberg residents feel at home in their city.

                                                                                                                                                                                   The City of Heidelberg


Today, we are no longer surprised to hear that half of the world’s population lives in cities. We also know that this number will increase to two out of every three people in less than three decades. Cities are blowing up.

We live in an age of urbanization, but with all its acceleration and complexity, we might ask the seemingly obvious again: What does it mean to live in a city?

The English word city originates in the Latin civitas, meaning “community member.” To live in a city, it seems, one becomes a member of a larger community, whether intentional or not. We become members of our community because we share basic living arrangements with others. At the same time, the question of whom these “members” entail is by no means clear. When Jane Jacobs (1961) writes, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” who is that “everybody”? Is it the 160,000 people that the City of Heidelberg declares as its citizens? Are there other members – indeed, other than human – with whom we share our living arrangements?

One of the most fundamental ways we make our urban living arrangements is through infrastructure such as streets, sewage, and water. And we seem to share most, if not all, of them with our other-than-human neighbors. When Hannah Appel, Nikhil Anand, and Akhil Gupta (2018) point out that infrastructure is humanity’s tool for attaining autonomy, isn’t this autonomy only partially achieved insofar as the infrastructure we build is always subject to forces beyond human control? Couldn’t the nature of a city be viewed as always already being a city of nature?

These questions might guide us toward conceiving of what some call a “more-than-human city” – a city understood as being shaped by both human and other-than-human forces. In doing so, this anthropological project zooms in on an iconic invasive species in Heidelberg: the rose-ringed parakeet. This bird species is particularly good to think  – and live – with (Haraway 2008), not merely because it has become an inseparable constituent of urban life in Heidelberg, but since its history and ecology reveal something important about the age we live in. As such, the personal stories I collected and my reflections on them below weave together human vistas and bird’s-eye views (the parakeets’ relationship to humans and the city). By practicing the arts of noticing (Tsing 2015), they tap into the sensorial worlds that unfold between multiple species that I hope will help us shift our perspective toward bringing our unnoticed neighbors into the picture of the “city.”


Pet trade, biological invasion, and the Anthropocene

Video 1

It was over an early dinner that Ms. Kodama spoke to me about her experiences with the parakeets. Ms. Kodama moved from Japan to Germany in her mid-twenties and has since lived in Heidelberg for nearly 40 years, working currently as a librarian. During this time, her family adopted a parakeet from their neighbor. In many ways, they did what most people would do to a pet parakeet: give it a name, feed it, speak to it, speak about it. The parakeet became a companion, and perhaps member, of the family.

At the same time, this pet parakeet was most likely another product in the global chain of the exotic-bird trade that has continued for over a century. Originally, the rose-ringed parakeet has its native ranges in Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. Since the mid-twentieth century, however, the parakeet has been introduced into many other parts of the world – from the United States to Japan – where feral populations have established themselves. Today, it is one of the most “successful” invasive bird species which has withstood urbanization and deforestation. Many scientists warn its possible ecological damage by branding it as a quintessentially invasive, alien, and destructive animal – an undesirable “pest” – that must be monitored, and ideally, culled (see e.g., Shiels and Kalodimos 2019; Hernandez-Brito et al. 2014).

If, however, the very cause of the biological invasion was so intricately intertwined with human activities, can we still consider an invasive species an evil pest? From colonial plantation enterprises to modern industrial farming, humans have consistently contributed to the transport, transfer, and transformation of “native species” in nonnative habitats. Biological invasion, and hence also its consequent feral ecologies, are the condition of life on this planet in the current epoch some have called the more-than-human Anthropocene (Tsing et al. 2020). Rather than vilify invasive animals and plants, wouldn’t it be more fruitful, we shall ask, to accept the already contaminated worlds and search for possibilities of collaborative survival in these worlds (Tsing 2015)? And in the context of a city – a fundamental unit of shared living arrangements – which modes of cohabitation with the parakeet are possible?


Multispecies communities

Video 2

One answer to the questions above is offered by Basti, my second interlocutor. Basti is a software engineer and member of a local urban gardening project in Heidelberg. He once witnessed a scene at the station in which taxi drivers who had grown frustrated at the parakeets’ droppings attempted to remove them from their evening roosts. On one hand, their frustration is certainly understandable. On the other hand, their action epitomizes the logic of exclusion that almost all communities exercise to varying degrees.

In his analysis of human-crow relations in an Australian city, Thom van Dooren (2019, 51-2) highlights exclusionary practices as foundational to an imagined community of natural balance, particularly within “the internal violence of conformity with pattern or identity.” In Heidelberg, as elsewhere, human and other-than-human residents are only allowed if they conform to particular ideals of beauty, aesthetics, or morality (Ninglekhu 2017). But what if only some, not others, had a real voice in establishing those ideals? What if the “violation” of these ideals – parakeets’ droppings on taxis – wasthe condition of life for these co-residents? Can we, as Basti suggests, just accept whoever is already part of the city without forcing them into our ways?

This may be easier said than done, but Basti provides another hint: we might establish a more convivial relationship by viewing the parakeet as a “neighbor.” This invites us to imagine the city as a community of neighbors, who, as Jane Jacobs (1961) declared, may show interest but do not necessarily intervene in each other’s lives. If one is to extend the human-centered claim of the City of Heidelberg (see above), the parakeet should and does “have a home” in Heidelberg. At stake here is to craft a multispecies community of neighbors, the key to whose flourishing lies in one’s capacity to tolerate and compromise (van Dooren 2019, 103-30). Learning to live with bird shit might lead to learning to live with others – human and otherwise – in an inclusive city.

Listening, walking, and re-encountering in a city

Video 3

There is one thing that all of my interlocutors call attention to: the sound of the birds. Indeed, the parakeet has a unique vocalization that grabs people’s attention. It blends into yet stands out among those clinks, buzzes, honks, bangs, hisses, beeps, that constitute the soundscape of Heidelberg. Animal sounds in urban spaces, however, are no new subject of analysis (Connor 2014). Urban anthropologists and ethnographers are becoming increasingly aware of just how sensorial urban experiences are and in which ways animals like birds come to shape – and be shaped by – such experiences.

One way which draws us to the world of auditory experiences is through walking. As we walk, we come to perceive self and environment (Lee and Ingold 2006) and witness the unfolding of worldmaking projects around us (Tsing 2015). This experience, it turns out, takes on additional meaning when birders actively explore different bird songs and calls.
Yanyu is a birder and international student in Heidelberg. Her view of the parakeet is not radically different from that of other residents of the city (i.e., “they are loud and noisy”), but her birding activity shows a more engaged mode of relating to the animal. Yanyu distinguishes its vocalization from those of other birds, imagines what they communicate, and in turn conjures up images of how the parakeets interact with and within the urban spaces (their living arrangements). Not only does she identify the “sociality” of the species (Tsing 2021), Yanyu mediates between the human view of birds and the bird’s view of humans. This mode of relatedness is grounded in the conscious acts of observing, attuning to, and understanding the avian ecology and its entanglement with the human one. Attentive listening, rather than hearing, opens up the possibility for re-encountering the worlds we thought we’d known.
Absent in presence, present in absence

Video 4

“As a zoologist, I always look for animals around me, even when going to the supermarket, but for the general public, they could stand below a tree full of screaming parrots, and to them that’d just be an ordinary background noise. It’s quite astounding how little people notice and focus on the wildlife around them.”

So spoke Jochen Roeder, a 50-year-old resident of Heidelberg and ecologist and zoologist. Jochen has worked as an environmental advisor and consultant in the private sector across Europe. As a hobby birdwatcher, Jochen has built an intimate emotional tie with the avian world; in contrast, as an ecologist, he is not unaware of the possible ecological risks of invasive species: “You know, there are two hearts in my chest: one says, ‘Okay, they are nice, colorful, and beautiful to watch,’ and the other one says, ‘But we shouldn’t have them.'”
Yet, personal ambivalence does not change the reality that the bird is a constituent of the urban life now. The parakeets, Jochen asserts, form a significant part of the character of Heidelberg. Further, their significance bears a seeming paradox: people would only notice it if and when they were gone. Something in and of the background would then be brought to the foreground – of people’s consciousness. The rose-ringed parakeets are absent in our minds as long as they are present in reality; their presence would emerge perhaps only in the wake of their absence.
This amnesia, says Jochen, is linked to many of the problems we face today. Our capacity to quickly adapt to our surroundings has a flipside: we take it for granted and become desensitized to the slow changes occurring around us.
Anthropologist Christiane Brosius (2017) observes in the post-earthquake landscape of urban life in Nepal that photography and other artistic production begin to exert the capacity to heal separations and cultivate intimacy with one another. Would it be possible to accept that the case of the rose-ringed parakeet in Heidelberg stands for a “slow disaster” – of anthropocentrism underpinning burgeoning capitalism, urban development, and human-induced biological invasion? Might this essay as a mode of storytelling and visualization help cultivate an intimate view of the human and more-than-human worlds unfolding in the midst of a catastrophe?
The parakeets and people’s stories about and with them remind us of one thing: that we are always presented with the privilege of appreciating those around us and showing them our appreciation – while they are still here.

My sincere thanks go to Ms. Kodama, Basti, Yanyu, and Jochen for sharing their valuable insights and making this project possible and meaningful. I am also grateful to my friend Hannah for letting me use her equipment and to my coursemate Julia for offering her perspective and generous help.


Anand, Nikhil, Akhil Gupta, and Hannah Appel, eds. 2018. The Promise of Infrastructure. Durham: Duke University Press.
Brosius, Christiane. 2017. “Art in the Aftermath of a Catastrophe. Gazing, Walking, Participating in the City.” In Breaking Views: Engaging Art in Post-Earthquake Nepal, edited by Christiane Brosius and Sanjeev Maharjan, 107–36. Kathamandu: Himal Books, Social Science Baha.

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Haraway, Donna J. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hernández-Brito, Dailos, Álvaro Luna, Martina Carrete, and José Luis Tella. 2014. “Alien Rose-Ringed Parakeets (Psittacula Krameri) Attack Black Rats (Rattus Rattus) Sometimes Resulting in Death.” Hystrix 25 (2): 121-121–123.

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Shiels, Aaron B., and Nicholas P. Kalodimos. 2019. “Biology and Impacts of Pacific Island Invasive Species. 15. Psittacula Krameri, the Rose-Ringed Parakeet (Psittaciformes: Psittacidae).” Pacific Science 73 (4): 421.

The City of Heidelberg. n.d. “Living in Heidelberg: A Great Place to Live.” Accessed March 24, 2022.,Len/Home/Life.html.

Tsing, Anna L., Jennifer Deger, Alder Keleman Saxena, and Feifei Zhou. 2020. Feral Atlas: The More-than-Human Anthropocene. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World the Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Tsing, Anna. 2021. “The Sociality of Birds: Reflections on Ontological Edge Effects.” Lecture given at the Yale NUS College.

van Dooren, Thom. 2019. The Wake of Crows the Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Participants Bio

Shuhei Tashiro is a PhD student at the Department of Anthropology and the Centre of Environmental Humanities, Aarhus University. His project is an ethnographic exploration of how coastal ecologies, underground dams, and plantations intersect in Anthropocene islands. Shuhei obtained his MA in Anthropology and Transcultural Studies at Heidelberg University and his BA in Liberal Arts and Sciences at University College Roosevelt.