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Last week, Lineatus asked me to write a guest Dawn Chorus diary on location in Iraq. I wrote the following last weekend in Suleymaniya, a city in the Kurdistan region, and am posting it this morning:

I’ll give you an update on what’s flying around in my part of the world, but first permit me to share a couple websites, and allow me a short digression on ravens.

Nature Iraq does amazing work in conservation, particularly in the southern marshes. They published the first guide in Arabic to the birds of Iraq.  Here’s their website:  http://www.natureiraq.org/

And here’s the website of a birder who served in Iraq between 2005-2006.  He’s also got a book out, called "Birding in Babylon":  http://birdingbabylon.blogspot.com/

Curiosity about the natural world is a universal human trait, and with it usually comes a love for birds. It’s not a question of culture, or class, or language. A couple days ago, I took a ride with our driver Jamal. His passion for birds manifests itself in pigeon breeding - he likes the ornamental variety that flies up and swirls in loops and the ones with floppy feathered feet and piebald feathers. We often end up talking birds on long drives.  

Not long ago, we arrived early for a meeting and waited in a gravel lot on the outskirts of Suleymaniya, and talked about migration. We watched as a flock of finches rose from a distant field, formed into a ball, and shifted and pulsed as if all the individual birds were a single organism. The mass of birds turned dark as they all tilted their wings in shade, and then became nearly invisible the next moment as they changed directions and the sun reflected off their wings. Jamal and I speculated that there might be a falcon around. We didn’t see it, but a raven passed overhead and we watched it fly into the distance. It grew smaller and smaller, and finally merged with a bit of dust on the windshield and disappeared.

Ravens are common here, nesting on the sheer cliffs of the Zagros mountains and flying great distances to feed on roadkill and burning trash heaps near the cities. Zagros mountains:

The ravens here are the same species as we have in North America, but are joined farther south by two other strange desert species - the brown-necked raven, and the broad-tailed raven, birds that survive by their wits in the desolate wastes of Saudi Arabia. Beautiful, curious birds, the common raven has for centuries been associated with battle and death. John McCain might be interested to know that the Romans also fought the Parthians here for 100 years, another meaningless war that would be forgotten if not for the occasional Roman coins that turn up in farmers’ fields. The coins bear the images of ravens and legionary standards. I like to think that a raven watched St. Paul fall off that donkey on the road to Damascus. Even earlier, the Epic of Gilgamesh - the oldest known Mesopotamian flood myth - relates how Utnapishtim released a raven in order to find land:

On Mt. Nimush the boat rested. A second day, a third and fourth. A fifth, a sixth, and on the seventh, I sent forth a dove. But she found no rest for her foot, and circled back to me. I sent forth a swallow. But she found no rest for her foot, and circled back to me. I sent forth a raven. And the raven found dried earth, and circled not back.

Noah sent forth a raven too, who promptly blew him off.  Probably annoyed, he then sent a dove, which brought him back an olive leaf. As improbable as the flood myth itself, it beggars belief that a dove would be trusted with the task of finding land. But a raven? They wander hundreds of miles, not so much by instinct, but by choice. Having raised a crow as a kid, I find all corvids irresistible. Their quick, alien intelligence, their curiosity and unpredictability place them apart from other birds. Sometimes a raven will respond if you call out to it, and other times they may fly over and deliberately croak at you. Last summer, we stopped near Khanaqin at a roadside tea stand on a scorching hot day.  There was an outdoor abattoir nearby and the ravens came to eat scraps. I pretended to go to the latrine and, having ditched the driver and guards, circled back and lay down in a shallow depression. I made a "whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop" sound just loud enough for the ravens to hear. Sure enough, the black head of one raven and then another soon appeared, silhouetted on the crest of the hill.  They would look, duck down, and then, overcome by curiosity, take another look. Our Iraqi counterparts are accustomed to some weird behavior from me, but I didn’t want them to see or hear this.  I got up after a minute or two, brushed off the gravel and dust, and headed back to the teashop.  They assumed my long absence was due to the summer diarrhea that afflicts us all, Iraqi and foreigner alike. Khanaqin is relatively safe, but it is only three hours to Baghdad and only half an hour from the "front line" - if such a thing can be said to exist in Iraq.  It did not occur to me until later that, as in Roman days, these ravens might have been looking at me as a potential meal rather than an object of their curiosity. After all, victims of sectarian conflict are dumped daily in Diyala province’s date and tangerine orchards, only an afternoon’s flight away.  

Here's "Haji Laqlaq", the common stork, nesting on a utility pole.  They are common in Kurdistan, and it is considered very bad luck to harm one.  Some idiot shot one of the storks nesting on top of the mosque in downtown Erbil, and was promptly thrown in prison.  

Speaking of prisons, right on the other side of the road is Susa Prison, where the US transported (hid) some of the "higher value" Abu Ghraib prisoners after the scandal broke, and where the KRG still holds prisoners of war from Kirkuk and Mosul:

Let me share another of my favorite birds, the Finsch’s Wheatear, which is quite common in Iraqi Kurdistan and nests underneath rocks on barren hillsides:

This morning, I went for a short bird walk and again saw one of my very favorites – the European Hoopoe, Upup epops.  

I saw this bird where they can usually be seen - in Serchinar ("Head of Poplars"), the restaurant and amusement park district just west of this city of about a million persons.  A large spring here feeds the water supply for the city, and water passes along concrete channels and pools under poplar and sycamore trees. Farther downstream, there’s a little bit of riverine forest. On weekend nights, the district is alive, packed with people drinking tea on plastic lawn furniture in front of the restaurants.

The air is redolent with kebab cooking on charcoal fires, and is lit up by generators powering nets of lights hung on the trees. This part of Iraq is more or less at peace, having experienced only two bombings over the last five years. People do not feel much fear or anxiety, except on the poorly maintained pirate ship ride. It has not been oiled in years, and screeches and sparks as it swings its load of teenagers high up into the sky.

This morning, the place was empty except for me, a couple sleeping guards, and the birds. Besides the hoopoe, I saw a migrating greenfinch – mostly these are seen up in Turkey:  I also saw the European Kestrel, which is a little larger but less brilliantly colored than our own American kestrel.  (I know there will be kestrels in the comment section, so I had to bring it up...)

And yes, I also saw a raven.

What’s flying around, making noise or generally attracting your attention this morning?

Originally posted to ivorybill on Sat May 10, 2008 at 06:00 AM PDT.

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