When walking through downtown Reykjavík, it‘s impossible to miss the large body of water that sits at the front door of the Reykjavík City town hall. Tjörnin simply translates to “the pond,” which is pretty fitting. There are no real frills or attractions. It‘s a shallow pond with some diverse bird life. Yet, it is a favourite spot for locals and tourists alike. From feeding the birds in the summer to ice skating in the winter, Tjörnin is arguably the heart of the city.
Tjörnin isn‘t technically one body of water but rather a part of five linked pools, ponds and lakes stemming from the Vatnsmýri marshlands. A stream initially connected Tjörnin to the sea, and this was mostly left untouched as Reykjavík grew in the later part of the 18th century and into the 19th century. In 1911, the city was built over the stream, using it instead as a sewer system. Lækjargata actually means “Stream Street.”
Over the following years, city planners took steps to turn the pond into the modern Tjörnin we know and love today. In 1913, they put locks in the pond‘s outlet to prevent seawater from surging into the pond. A pedestrian bridge was erected in 1920, cutting the pond in two. The bridge was widened and reinforced to support vehicles during the Second World War.
The Biggest Bread Soup in the World
Tjörnin also plays an important role in the city‘s cultural life. It is a wonderful place for a stroll in any type of weather. But on a particularly sunny day in the summer, the surrounding green and the reflection of the buildings on the pond‘s surface make you feel as though you are in a storybook rather than in downtown Reykjavík.
Festivals and concerts are held in the nearby Hljómskáli Park. Crowds have gathered around the pond on holidays and for other ceremonies, like a night of remembrance for those who died in the bombing of Hiroshima. In the wintertime, it freezes over. While most people use it as a shortcut from the west side to downtown, others strap on their blades and use the pond to ice skate or play ice hockey. Some adventurous young men have been known to trace out a football field in the snow and play a snowy game on the ice.
But perhaps the biggest attraction the pond has to offer is its birds. Over 40 different bird species can be found at the pond at different times, including Eider ducks, arctic terns, geese, seagulls and whooping swans. In the summer, they can be seen floating around the pond or settling on the small island in the centre. In the winter, incoming warm water keeps a small section of the northernmost part of the pond from freezing over. The birds gather here to avoid the cold or the dangers the ice may pose.
No matter what time of year it is, one of the favourite Tjörnin pastimes is feeding the birds. Children, the elderly, sweethearts, and tourists all enjoy tossing handfuls of bread crumbs into the pond for the birds to gobble up. This has been such a staple of Tjörnin‘s existence that one poet dubbed the pond “the biggest bread soup in the world.”
In recent years, however, word has spread about the dangers of feeding bread to ducks and birds. Biologists have suggested feeding them peas, seeds or grains instead of chunks of bread. It may be difficult to do away with such a common and beloved activity at Tjörnin, but it is worth looking at exactly what bread does to the birds and its ecosystem.
The Great Bread Dread
According to the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust, an occasional snack of bread is not all that harmful to a bird. Moderation is key – small doses here and there won‘t disrupt their diet. But at a place like Tjörnin, where feeding the birds is a common occurrence, moderation is difficult to monitor. If one family a day comes to throw birds in the pond, those creatures will have a heavy diet of bread and may come to rely on it as a food source.
Studies have shown that a heavy diet of bread can cause some birds to develop weaker muscles than those eating less bread. Birds that rely on bread may also be less inclined to forage for food, putting them further at risk health-wise. Bread contains a lot of protein, which, when introduced into a bird‘s diet, can create a protein imbalance. One of the risks that can result is Angel Wing, a disease that stunts the wing development in young birds.
Beyond the health of the birds, too much bread can create an unhealthy environment. An artificially high food supply can cause the birds to produce an unusually high amount of offspring. This increase in population with an unstable food supply can lead to the deaths of several birds as they struggle to find food in other ways. A build-up of bird poop can create dangerous and unhealthy conditions for the birds. An excess of bread can also invite invasive species or predatory birds into the area, upsetting the ecosystem.
Given the environmental issues with nesting birds in the nearby Vatnsmýri marsh – the source of the water for Tjörnin pond – we are hoping to conserve the birdlife in the area. So, if you‘d like to feed the birds during your walk along the pond, we recommend using chopped or ripped-up vegetables, seeds, or grains rather than bread. It is possible some of the same sustainable issues may arise with so many people feeding the birds, but at least we can try to avoid the health issues that come with a loaf of bread.