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February 07, 2005

Birds of Iraq: The Mesopotamian Crow

Had this email from a solider in Iraq waiting in the inbox when we returned from skiing this weekend.

You seem to be a bit of a bird watcher.

Iím over here in Baghdad for a year, at the Al Faw Palace. There is lots of water around and lots of birds.

However Ė I have not found a website with good photos of birds for this area, so itís tough to identify them. We do have the Eurasian Collared Dove, in great quantities. Also rooks Ė same ones they have in Germany, Iíve seen them before.

Any ideas?

Thx

Bob

I'm not actually that much of a bird watcher, at least not as much as I once was. Rarely do I leave the house with the specific intention of birding on my mind. On the other hand, I do attempt to ID most every species I see, which leads to exciting times for the wife when I spot a hawk hanging out near the interstate. My uncle and cousin are the serious birders in the family. Their claim to fame is the first sighting of a Stygian Owl in the U.S., which for birders is the fame equivalent of having the most assists from third base in a season. Serious geeks venerate you, but the great unwashed notice you not.

Still, something is bound to rub off when one regularly associates with such major bird geeks (Morologus Avifauna). Even with unknown species Iím usually able to narrow the bird down to the family level, and that factoid along with a location is usually I need to id the bird from a field guide.

Which I realize makes me a major bird geek as far as the vast majority of humanity is concerned, but to the real major bird geeks, I'm no more than a dilettante. Still, it doesn't stop me from playing one on the Internet--where, oddly enough, I have the same degree of relationship to the major geeks that I possess in the world of birding.

Bob has a point when he says there's no website with good photos of birds for Iraq. In fact, there's not much at all when it comes to Iraqi birds. A type of rough field guide could be cobbled together out of this checklist and a Google Image search, which is similar to the process I use when I discover that the AP has misidentified a species, but it's clunky, and difficult as hell if one doesn't know at least the bird's family.

Ideally, Bob would have been able to get in touch with Jonathan of Birding Babylon, but Jonathan's tour of duty ended last week, so the Babylon part of Birding Babylon is over for at least a while, it would seem.

Turns out that, at the beginning of his tour, Jonathan had the same problem as Bob and contacted 10,000 Birds, who ended up running most of the same fruitless searches as myself, though they did figure out that, if there's no pictorial guide to Iraqi birds per se, there are at least some online guides for the nations bordering Iraq.

The illustrated bird list of northern Iran provides a comprehensive list of the birds of the southeast Caspian Sea. If you can identify which family a bird belongs to, you can then search the pictures of the birds on this list and hopefully find a match. The Caspian Sea is not that close to Iraq, but what does distance matter to a bird?

Looking to Iraq's western border, another potentially useful resource is Illustrations of birds of Syria. This site features 60 well-rendered pictures of Syrian birds along with their scientific and Arabic names. The illustrations are arrayed in no discernable order, but they may be useful in the identification of some common birds.

The only resource I was able to locate that 10,000 birds had not run across earlier was this listing of Birds of The Middle East, translated into Arabic and made available online as a series of .pdf files, but a number of the photographic plates appear to missing from the files, so they aren't a lot of help, either.

Ideally, I wrote back to Bob, would be to get a physical copy of Birds of the Middle East to use. There's nothing handier than having the guide actually with you when a bird pops up, and perusing through it at other times is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with the species one is likely to see. Frankly, I attribute my--relatively extensive, as I pointed out above--knowledge of the North American bird species to little more than thumbing through my elderly Golden Guide while in the bathroom.

"There's nothing like the potty for the making of a naturalist," I'll tell the kids, when they get older and ask me for more stirring adventure tales of Wallace and Wilson .

I eventually decided that, if the ideal thing was to get Bob his own copy of Birds of the Middle East, then I should be the one to make sure it happened. Fortunately, Amazon not only had copies in stock, it'll ship the book to Iraq for little more than it costs to ship within the states, so off to Bob a copy went.

In return, I extracted from Bob a promise to send me any decent pictures he manages to snap of the birds he spots. Sure, Instapundit might have an Afghanistan correspondent, but what is that when compared to an Iraq avifaunalist?

Bob agreed, and was as good as his word, sending over this picture of a crow the very next day.


The above was actually part of a much larger file. Email me if you'd like the full size copy

Ah, but what kind of crow? There's the rub. Bob speculated that it might be a Hooded Crow, which turned out to be a very close guess indeed. The problem was that the Hooded Crow, while it does indeed occur in Iraq, is much more of a sooty grey and black bird than it is a black and white one.

It's actually a Mesopotamian Crow, Corvus (corone) capellanus--alternatively known as the Iraqi Pied Crow--which is found only in the Tigris/Euphrates basin of Iraq and southwestern Iran. Capellanus is presently considered to be a subspecies of the Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix, and like the overall listings for the Birds of Iraq, there's remarkably little in the way of resources on the web when it comes to the bird, aside from this picture at a Polish wiki and this one from Birding Babylon.

Thank god the UNC zoology library is no more than a short walk away. It contains a copy of the Helms Guide to Crows and Jays, from which I found out that the Mesopotamian Crow may be, along with the Egyptian Hooded Crow, a separate species from the Hooded Crow itself. No one seems to know for sure, and the species does not appear to have been closely examined since the late 1950's. While a call for the Mesopotamian Crow has been described; "it utters a peculiar rattling call, resembling a speeded-up version of the bill rattle of the White Stork. This rattle lasts about a second and is repeated ten times in three seconds... no one is sure if it is a typical call or not, or if any other calls exist.

Likewise there is little information on the habits or breeding activities of the Mesopotamian Crow. Mostly it is assumed that they act much like Hooded and Carrion crows, though again, no one knows for sure.

On the Euphrates they assemble in sand-bars together with birds of prey and feral dogs...Breeding: Little information. One nest was described as a "comparatively small" construction of sticks and palm fibers and was placed in an apple tree in a riverside orchard.

As 10,000 birds points out, there hasn't been a detailed survey of Iraqi birds, or any other Iraqi fauna, I would think, in years. No wonder so little is known about Iraqi birds in general, or of the Mesopotamian crow in particular. Freedoms of all kinds suffer under a dictatorship, and natural history requires not only the freedom to roam and investigate, it requires the freedom to act oddly in comparison to the populace at large, as any birder will tell you. I imagine that one particular freedom was very difficult to come by in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

No longer.

Next: The White-Cheeked Bulbul

Posted by Bigwig at February 7, 2005 02:11 PM | TrackBack
Postscript:
First time visitor to House Hraka? Wondering if everything we produce could possibly be as brilliant/stupid/evil/pedantic/insipid/inspired as the post you just read? Check out the Hraka Essentials, the (mostly) reader-selected guide to Hraka's best posts, and decide for yourself.
Comments

A firend of mine just spent a year in Afganistan. Being a soldier, he did not have too much time to do natural history, but that is another example of a country where no studies have been done in decades.

This is a great post for Tangled Bank, btw...

Posted by: coturnix at February 8, 2005 12:50 AM

A friend of mine just spent a year in Afganistan. Being a soldier, he did not have too much time to do natural history, but that is another example of a country where no studies have been done in decades.

This is a great post for Tangled Bank, btw...

Posted by: coturnix at February 8, 2005 12:51 AM

I admire the scope and thoroughness of your research, Bigwig. Protests to the contrary, you're obviously quite a birder.

Coturnix is right in saying that your work is well-suited to the Tangled Bank, though I'm partial to your tit post...

Posted by: Mike at February 10, 2005 07:09 PM

Well, ya'll've convinced me. Off it goes to the next TB.

And everyone enjoys a nice tit post, is my feeling on the matter.

Posted by: Bigwig at February 10, 2005 08:40 PM

Hello to All,
Im russ and my daughter and wife are writting a children's book about my Dog fluffy. the book idea was based on a true story. At the end of the book i will have a bio of each animal in the book and was looking for some help with this. i am using the Mesopotamian crow. And would like some one i can contact for the bio for the book as well as someone who took this picture so i may get the rights to use it in the book. thank you, Russ and Fluffy

Posted by: Russell Joyce at February 27, 2005 04:01 PM

very interesting. I am sitting on the banks of the Euphrates and have been calling that crow a Hooded Crow all along. 'Birds of the Middle East' does not distinguish the Mesopotamian crow. Good day for this birder.

Posted by: Special at March 20, 2005 11:57 AM

I, too, was wondering about the difference between the Hooded and the Mesopotamian Crow. However, after much speculation, I have decided that I am seeing the Hooded Crow. I am futher west in Iraq, and the Crows are definitely not nearly as white as the ones in the pictures. More of a gray. Has anyone else actually seen a Hooded Crow in the region? If so, where?

Posted by: cbl413 at April 2, 2005 12:04 PM
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