The little brown bird that frequently perches on the windowsill of my house suddenly caught my curiosity. I had just picked up a copy of a first-of-its-kind (already out of print) guide to the birds of Egypt, which promises to help readers identify just about any bird in the country.
I wait for the bird when I’m home in the morning, hoping to observe the now study-worthy creature with new eyes, knowing it’s not just a bird.
Leafing through the compact guide, 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 only crosses Egypt during its migration and reproduces in the Levant.
In a country known for its often arid landscapes and hot climate, Egypt can sometimes conjure up images of sepia-colored deserts and sand dunes rather than wildlife and nature. For this reason, a guide dedicated to the birds of Egypt may seem like a distant subject, even a luxury. We are not, after all, a bird-conscious nation. In fact, we know so little about feathered creatures that the book even draws attention to them.
On the cover of the book, there is a photograph of a thick-kneed, long-beaked Senegalese bird with yellow eyes, visibly prominent knees, and disproportionate legs that both look and sound foreign. Few know that this bird is none other than the iconic karawan, albeit under a different name, a bird often poetically alluded to in Egyptian fiction, film and song lyrics, but rarely visualized.
“How many Egyptians do you know who have seen a karawan,” Richard Hoath, a leading British naturalist and author of the book, asked me last week. By choosing a karawan for his cover image, Hoath, who has studied, written and drawn these birds for 30 years, perfectly captures Egypt’s indifference to its avifauna. Not only have I never seen a karawan before, but I was unaware of my own unconsciousness until I read Hoath’s book.
Egypt, according to the book’s introduction, has a staggering list of species approaching 500 birds. This is comparable to 626 Britain, a country in which birdwatching is a popular and inexpensive pastime, as it is in many other parts of the world. While it’s not easy or advisable to get around in a safety-conscious state with binoculars and a camera, birdwatching isn’t exactly part of Egyptian culture. “It’s definitely an unusual pastime here,” admits Hoath.
The 176-page book is published by AUC Press in Egypt and also appears internationally as a field guide to birds of the Middle East, including Egypt, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. Its compact size and inevitably tiny font, necessary to fit in the 280 described bird species, contains comprehensive listings and superb photographs.
A brief 120-word description for each bird includes its size, sound, habitat, and distribution with its English name in bold. Indeed, the English name is “the most widely accepted name in the literature”, explains the book, which generally follows the name used in the Egyptian Ornithological Committee’s (EORC) Official Egyptian Bird Checklist.
Hoath, who also wrote and illustrated A Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt in 2009 and has published numerous other books and articles on the region’s wildlife, says he wrote the bird guide because he didn’t there were none available. It’s designed to simply be tossed into a backpack on a country outing or for a day in the city.
“It’s a book for anyone who knows natural history,” Hoath said in a phone interview. Its readers do not need to be professionals, just people interested in identifying birds to the species level. “You flip through the photos, which are key to this, and see what comes closest to what your bird looks like. Then you will know if it is a heron, an egret, a perch or a raptor, etc.
LANGUAGE OF BIRDS: However, The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East is still an English-language book sold in an Arabic-speaking country, and that being so, its promise to identify the country’s birdlife may seem like a marketing mistake or a error in judgement. sort of brilliant oxymoron.
“We looked at that,” Hoath says, but there are no specific Arabic names for species-level identification. “For example, the house sparrow is asfour, which is just a bird in Arabic. So for most people it is more useful to have the English name but also – and this transcends all languages - the scientific name of the bird.
The book is also aimed at the tourist market. Millions of tourists, especially from Europe, flock to Egypt, and they bring their birdwatching hobby with them, he says. “People come here, and they’ll want to know what bird they see.”
He also believes the book could raise awareness of the wealth of birds in Egypt. At LE300 ($16), the book is reasonably priced. “I think anyone flipping through the book will look at some of these photographs and say, wow, are they found in Egypt?”
“The bee-eater is here in the middle of town, but you have to not only keep your eyes open, but also your ears,” says Hoath. This dedicated naturalist who lives in the Garden City district of Cairo, on the east bank of the Nile, describes a likely scene in his busy neighborhood where the bird could be seen.
“You hear ‘kru kru kru’ and you look up, and there it is, flying. Then you see how beautiful it is: brown above, turquoise below, yellow throat and black bandit mask.
The metropolis as a whole does not lack bird species. Herons and egrets are easily found downriver, where they stay all summer. South of Cairo, in the district of Maadi, Wadi Degla is home to desert birds like the sand partridge, the black crow and the lanner falcon. Hoath says he has recorded more than 50 species of birds at 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 are home to the cattle egret, lesser green bee-eater and hoopoe, among others. Lake Fayoum at its western end is an open theater for winter flocks of flamingos.
The book’s introduction explains that since Egypt has no natural borders, its birds are not exclusive to it, nor do they recognize modern state borders as they pass through the region. The semi-annual spectacle of bird migration in spring and autumn, where Egypt, particularly the Red Sea, is a key transit point, remains one of the country’s most important and perhaps underrated attractions. .
Hoath argues that the uniqueness of Egypt lies in the accurate depiction of birds at the species level that has been going on for millennia. “Egypt has had this perspective for thousands of years that no other country has on its wildlife. Even if you don’t see the live birds, you have seen them on the walls of tombs and temples” , he said.
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 Thoth, the god of scribes) disappeared in Egypt.
According to Hoath, this happened in the late 19th century due to habitat destruction.
“The Nile Valley and the delta are now a largely man-made environment. It is the result of a long series of draining the swamps and developing the valley for agriculture. The only area of modern Egypt with original Nilotic vegetation is a small group of protected islands, Saluga and Ghazal, in Aswan.
“All the way north of there is a largely man-made environment due to agriculture and now urbanization. The papyrus swamps have completely disappeared. Everywhere south of there has been flooded by Lake Nasser behind the Aswan Dam.
Hoath’s research into ancient faunal 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 depicted animals and birds in such detail on the walls of tombs and temples at Edfu, Kom Ombo, and Hatshepsut, modern naturalists can identify to the species level.
“In many ways, Egypt has perhaps the oldest birding history in the world,” he says.
Flipping through the glossy pages of the guidebook, I couldn’t find the little bird perched in my window. But taking heed of Hoath’s advice to “open my senses”, I managed to recognize the melodic sound of the bulbul at dawn.
With the help of the guide, I recognized another visitor from the windowsill, which I had assumed to be a pigeon, but learned that it was actually a “laughing dove”. The description matched: a six-syllable call, “doo doo doo doo doo doo.”
The dove, which lives in a small public garden across from my apartment, was determined to nest and damage my new geraniums for weeks. The audacity of the bird’s indifference to my human presence and its attempts to drive it away were surprising. Page 88 of the guide explains why.
“In Egypt, very common resident throughout the Delta and the Valley… Habitat and habits: agricultural land, orchards… cities… Very familiar even in large urban centers such as Cairo and Alexandria.
Yes, that would be my bird.
Richard Hoat, Birds of Egypt and the Middle EastCairo: AUC Press, 2021, pp176.
*A version of this article appeared in the June 9, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.