The small brown bird that frequently perches on my home windowsill suddenly captured my curiosity. I had just landed a copy of an (already sold out) first-of-its-kind guidebook on the birds of Egypt, which promises to help readers identify just about any bird in the country.
I wait for the bird when I am at home in the morning, hoping to observe the now study-worthy creature with new eyes, knowing that it is not just a bird.
Flipping through the compact guidebook, The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East, I stop at page 140. “Spotted flycatcher” seems to resemble my bird. But no, the book tells me, this one merely passes through Egypt during its migration and breeds in the Levant.
In a country known for its often-arid landscapes and hot weather, Egypt can sometimes evoke images of sepia-coloured deserts and sand dunes rather than of wildlife and nature. For this reason, a guidebook devoted to Egypt’s birds might seem like a distant subject, a luxury even. We are not, after all, a nation that is consciously aware of its birds. In fact, we know so little about the feathered creatures that the book even draws attention to it.
On the cover of the book there is a photograph of a Senegal thick-knee, long-beaked bird with yellow eyes, noticeably prominent knees, and disproportionally long legs that both looks and sounds foreign. Few people would know that this bird is none other than the iconic karawan, though under a different name, a bird often poetically referred to in Egyptian fiction, cinema, and song lyrics, but hardly ever visualised.
“How many Egyptians do you know who have seen a karawan,” Richard Hoath, a leading British naturalist and author of the book, asked me rhetorically last week. By choosing a karawan for his cover image, Hoath, who has been studying, writing about, and drawing these birds for 30 years, perfectly captures Egypt’s indifference to its avifauna. Not only have I never seen a karawan before, I was unaware of my own obliviousness until I read Hoath’s book.
Egypt, according to the book’s introduction, has a staggering species list approaching 500 birds. This is comparable to Britain’s 626, a country in which bird-watching is a popular and inexpensive pastime, as it is in many other parts of the world. Even though it is not easy or advisable to be going around in a security-conscious state carrying binoculars and a camera, bird-watching is not exactly part of Egyptian culture. “It is certainly an unusual hobby here,” Hoath admits.
The 176-page book is published by the AUC Press in Egypt and also appears internationally as a field guide to the birds of the Middle East including Egypt, the Levant, and the Arabian Peninsula. Its compact size and inevitably tiny font, necessary to fit in all the 280 species of birds described, contains comprehensive lists and stunning photographs.
A brief 120-word description for each bird includes its size, sound, habitat and distribution with its English name in bold. This is because the English name is “the most widely accepted name across the literature,” the book explains, which generally follows the name used in the official Egyptian Ornithological Rarities Committee (EORC) checklist of Egyptian birds.
Hoath, who also authored and illustrated A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt in 2009 and has published many other books and articles on the region’s wildlife, says he wrote the birds guidebook because there wasn’t one available. It is designed to just throw in a knapsack when going out to the countryside or for a day out in the city.
“It is a book for anyone familiar with natural history,” Hoath said in a telephone interview. Its readers need not be professionals, just people interested in identifying birds to a species level. “You flick through the photographs, which are the key to this, and see what comes closest to what your bird looks like. Then you will know if it’s a heron, an egret, a perching bird or a bird of prey, etc.”
LANGUAGE OF THE BIRDS
However, The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East is still an English-language book selling in an Arabic-speaking country, and this being so its promise of identifying the country’s avifauna might appear to be a marketing misjudgement or a kind of glossy oxymoron.
“We’ve looked into this,” Hoath says, but there are no specific Arabic names for species-level identification. “For instance, the house sparrow is asfour, which is just a bird in Arabic. So, for most people it is more helpful to have the English name but also — and that transcends all languages — the bird’s scientific name.”
The book is also aimed at the tourist market. Millions of tourists, particularly from Europe, flock to Egypt, and they bring their hobby of bird-watching with them, he says. “People come over here, and they’ll want to know what bird they’re seeing.”
He also feels that the book could raise awareness of the wealth of Egypt’s birds. At LE300 ($16) the book is reasonably priced. “I think anybody flicking through the book will look at some of those photographs and say, wow these are found in Egypt?”
“The bee-eater is here in the middle of the city, but you have got not just to keep your eyes, but also your ears, open,” Hoath says. This devoted naturalist who lives in Cairo’s Garden City district on the eastern side of the Nile describes a likely scene in his bustling neighbourhood where the bird could be seen.
“You hear ‘kru kru kru’ and you look up, and there it is, flying around. Then you see how beautiful it is: chestnut above, turquoise below, yellow throat and black bandit mask.”
The metropolis as a whole is not lacking in bird species. Herons and egrets are easily found down river, where they stay throughout the summer. South of Cairo, in the Maadi district, Wadi Degla is home to desert birds like the sand partridge, the black raven, and the lanner falcon. Hoath says he has recorded over 50 species of birds on the AUC campus in New Cairo, including 13 that breed in the gardens.
In Fayoum, 100 km southwest of Cairo, the diverse agriculture and desert environment is home to cattle egret, the little green bee-eater, and the hoopoe among others. Lake Fayoum at its western end is an open theatre for winter flocks of flamingos.
The introduction to the book explains that since Egypt has no natural borders, its birds are not exclusive to it, and nor do they recognise modern-state frontiers as they soar across the region. The twice-yearly spectacle of bird migration in spring and autumn, where Egypt, especially the Red Sea, is a key place of passage, remains one of the country’s greatest and possibly underrated attractions.
Hoath argues that Egypt’s uniqueness lies in the accurate portrayal of birds at species-level that has been taking place for millennia. “Egypt has had this perspective over thousands of years that no other country has on their wild life. Even if you’re not seeing the birds alive, you’ve seen them on the walls of tombs and temples,” he says.
While many of these ancient birds are known to modern Egyptians, including the kestrel (the falcon-headed god Horus), other birds like the sacred ibis (venerated as the Thoth, the god of scribes) have become extinct in Egypt.
According to Hoath, this happened in the late-19th century due to habitat destruction.
“The Nile Valley and the Delta is a largely artificial environment now. It is the result of a long series of the draining of swamps and the development of the valley for agriculture.” The only area in modern Egypt featuring original Nilotic vegetation is a small group of protected islands, the Saluga and Ghazal, in Aswan.
“Everything north of there is a largely man-made environment because of agriculture and now urbanisation. The papyrus swamps have completely disappeared. Everywhere south of there has been flooded by Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam.”
Hoath’s research on ancient wildlife inscriptions is the subject of another book project, a photographic guide to the animals of ancient Egypt. Because thousands of years ago the ancient Egyptians portrayed animals and birds in such detail on the walls of tombs and of the Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Hatshepsut temples, modern naturalists can identify them to species level.
“In many ways, Egypt perhaps has the oldest history of bird-watching in the world,” he says.
Flicking through the guide’s glossy pages, I failed to find the small bird perching at my window. But heeding Hoath’s advice to “open my senses”, I successfully recognised the melodic sound of the bulbul at the break of dawn.
With the guide’s help, I recognised another windowsill visitor, which I had assumed was a pigeon, but learned is in fact a “laughing dove”. The description matched: a six-syllable call, “doo doo doo doo doo doo.”
The dove, which lives in a tiny public garden opposite my apartment, was determined to nest on — and damage — my new geraniums for weeks on end. The audacity of the bird’s indifference to my human presence and attempts to shoo it away was startling. Page 88 of the guide explains why.
“In Egypt, very common resident throughout Delta and Valley… Habitat and habits: farmland, orchards… cities… Very familiar even in large urban centres such as Cairo and Alexandria.”
Yep — that would be my bird.
Richard Hoath, The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East, Cairo: AUC Press, 2021, pp176.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.