The SPECTIO project at the Parco archeologico del Colosseo

First-time visitors to the PArCo are always pleasantly surprised by how green the grounds are year-round and by how many herbs and flowers brighten up the landscape. For centuries, this abundant greenery has been home to a wide array of fauna as well, including small mammals, reptiles, insects and above all birds, certainly the easiest to spot and most frequently photographed of the bunch. As the sun set on the Roman Empire and the valley of the Forum and Palatine Hill were progressively abandoned, a blanket of spontaneous vegetation began to creep its way into the ruins and expand through gardens and other green spaces. The entire area was slowly repopulated by animals who found this newly created ecosystem both peaceful and habitable, in a transformed landscape that was now on the outskirts of the city.


Bearing this legacy in mind as well as the special attention that the PArCo has always paid to its wildlife, the SPECTIO project took off in early 2020, on the initiative of our Education, Teaching and Training Services. The goal of the project is to observe and study the behavior of our local fauna, with an emphasis on PArCo birdlife, in the interests of protecting and promoting this natural asset while engaging the public through publications, didactic workshops, themed guided tours and social media posts. The project’s first mission was to define an agreement protocol with Ornis Italica, an NPO that’s already been active for several years monitoring the lives of our PArCo seagulls.


Starting in March 2020, and therefore coinciding with the explosion of the pandemic, significant reactions were observed all over the world on the part of wildlife responding to the changes in human activity imposed by the spread of coronavirus. To better define this phenomenon of standstill or even reduction in human presence in many places around the world (including the PArCo), scientists found it useful to coin a new term: “anthropause”. Although fruit of an extremely dramatic event, this was no doubt a unique opportunity to observe a global series of phenomena of great interest for the study of humankind’s impact on wildlife.


In this vein, under the guidance of the Bio-Logging Society, the COVID-19 Bio-Logging Initiative was launched to investigate animal behavior through a massive and wide-scale collection of data. The initiative’s goal is to evaluate the weight that anthropic action has on nature when human activity stops. The PArCo is participating in this project thanks to the interest and commitment of Ornis Italica, who have taken it upon themselves to manage data collection and processing. The NPO is working with the coordination of Teaching Services and of course the indispensable collaboration of all the PArCo’s staff, a precious resource for making observations and sending in photos.


Interested parties can find all the latest updates and other news on the project right here on this page or communicated in advance on our PArCo social media accounts.


Emilio the seagull


The PArCo’s “resident” seagulls have been monitored by Ornis Italica since 2017, thanks to the small GPS trackers attached to their backs. One of the most interesting findings is undoubtedly the story of Emilio, given this name because he nests in the Basilica Aemilia in the Roman Forum. First in July 2019 and then again in July 2020, Emilio undertook a 750 km journey north, crossing the Alps to spend a few months on Lake Constance in Switzerland. Then, with the arrival of winter and the new mating season, he flew back to his home in the center of Rome. The map below shows all the journeys that the six tracked gulls have taken so far, most of which don’t stray from the center of Rome.


The redstart that comes from the cold


One of the PArCo’s most common winter residents is the black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). We often see them flitting around in search of insects, their tailfeathers like a red flash which, in males, contrasts with the dark gray of their bodies. If you look closely you can see a little metal ring attached to some birds’ ankles: this is an ID band attached by ornithologists to keep track of migratory and non-migratory birds alike.

And guess what? Thanks to his leg band, we’ve discovered that this little bird comes all the way from Hungary! After a summer in northern Europe, he probably felt the need to spend the winter in a warmer climate, and he chose the PArCo for its safety from predators and its abundance of food in the colder months.


Why “Spectio”?


In Ancient Rome, spectio was the ritual observation of birds in flight and of other natural phenomena, which could be interpreted as auspices, or predictions for the future. For the practice to be ritually sound, spectio was performed in a dedicated sacred space, the auguraculum. We aren’t exactly sure what these structures looked like, if they even had a specific form: it’s possible that they were simply sacred areas oriented to the cardinal points.


History’s most famous spectio is perhaps that performed by Romulus and Remus to decide on which hill to found the would-be Eternal City. Romulus sat in the auguratorium to the southeast of the Palatine and Remus went atop the Aventine. It only seemed right to give this same name to our own project of animal – and especially bird – observation.