The amazing wildlife of Olsanske Cemeteries

Photo: Petr Kadlec

Olsanske Cemetery in Prague is in fact a large complex of several cemeteries: including a Jewish and Orthodox cemeteries and graveyards of soldiers killed in both WWI and WWII. The whole area is some fifty hectares large and according to estimates some two million people have been buried there. First founded in the 17the century, not only are the cemeteries packed with history but they appear to be a whole ecosystem within the city. Framed by busy thoroughfares from all sides, the two rectangles are real oases of wildlife under a canopy of trees.

Just recently I saw something which one does not come across every day. A jay bird was sitting on a gravestone, its wings kind of drooping, its beak split open. The bird appeared unwell yet strangely energetic at the same time. It kept scratching itself frantically under the wings as if some kind of insects were biting it. When it finally noticed me and flew away I could see that it had been sitting right in the middle of an ant trail. As jays are insectivores I was quite sure the bird would not be sitting in amongst its prey without noticing it. So I thought there must have been a purpose. I made some research and really, this behaviour has been described by ornithologists and aptly termed "anting".

Several species of birds are known to place ants in their feathers or simply "bathe" in ants. It is believed they are making use of the formic acid exuded by ants which acts as a disinfectant. Another theory says it just makes them high. The jay bird I saw definitely looked strangely agitated.

Another curiosity I saw was a pale green bird's egg - I believe it was a blackbird's egg - laid by its careless mother right inside the folded arms of a sandstone angel - the headstone of a grave of several young children and their father who all died under tragic circumstances, not specified in the gilded inscription.

The cemeteries are also full of squirrels. A few years ago, I saw one there which running across a path, stopped in the middle of it, facing me. It stood up on its hind legs and, I swear, put its little hand on its heart. A very moving sight in a cemetery, I must tell you.

I also got scared the other day. As I squatted to take a closer look at a couple of tiny red strawberries by a grave, I got so frightened I jumped. A big orange mangy cat was lying just a few inches from my face, basking in the sun and soaking up the warmth from the granite, gazing at me with a pair of slit eyes.

If you ever do come to Prague, I recommend you take a detour from the crowded well-trodden tourist paths and spend a few hours at Olsanske Cemeteries. If only for the extraordinary wildlife which has found refuge there in the middle of a busy city.