Thematic Dossier IX: Birds in Afghanistan
Photo: Mark Mallalieu
It had started out as a grey, rainy week in Kabul – just perfect for birdwatchers. Birds flying north, sometimes thousands of kilometres on their spring migrations, are more likely to land in the green trees of the Afghan capital when the weather is bad. This week, AAN’s Kate Clark has been woken by the haunting melody of Golden Orioles; in the early dawn, they can be seen – a flash of gold among the green leaves of tall trees. The Kabul Birds Club, an informal group, largely Afghan, but with a couple of foreigners, which watches and record birds in the capital, has also seen an Asian Paradise Flycatcher – a rare sighting of this handsome rufous, black and white bird with its extraordinarily long tail. As an encouragement to readers to look to the skies and the trees, whatever the weather, AAN has gathered together the many dispatches it has published on birds in Afghanistan. In this Birds Dossier, you can also find dispatches exploring how Afghans prize birds in various pastimes: pigeon fancying, bird fights … and hunting. Although we did try to leave the war behind for once, we also wanted to re-publish our investigation into a suspected Taleban suicide bird bomber.
Part 1: Bird-Watching
The dossier starts with a dispatch about the spring migration by Mark Mallalieu. (1) In spring, he writes, the capital’s trees attract thousands of small, insectivorous birds, which winter in the Indian subcontinent to Central Asia, Russia and even countries in central Europe. From the air, for a small, tired bird, Kabul’s capital is an oasis of parks and gardens. He has advice on what to look for and how to look and we have put together a slideshow of birds that he photographed in Kabul. (2)
The 2010 sighting in Badakhshan of one of the rarest bids on the planet, the large-billed reed warbler, is the trigger for a lyrical piece about the effects of war and environmental change on Afghanistan’s birds, both those like the warbler which have survived and those which have vanished, among them the vast flocks of flamingos which used to give “a red glow” to the skyline of Ab-e Istada and Dasht-e Nawar in Ghazni. (We also advise how you can see these glorious birds in Dubai.) In this section are also dispatches featuring the long list of birds seen by a Dutch soldier-cum-birdwatcher from his posting at Kandahar airbase and about how he found comradeship with an American soldier posted to Iraq.
Author: Mark Mallalieu Date: 7 July 2013
Author: AAN Team Date: 13 February 2010
Author: Thomas Ruttig Date: 22 December 2010
Author: AAN Team Date: 15 November 2010
Part 2: Birds as Insurgents? Gulls as food?
This section revisits the sad tales of two particular migrants shot down in Afghanistan. One, a houbara bustard, was killed by police who thought it was a Taleban suicide bird bomber. Not one of the media’s finest hours, several described the bird as wearing a mini-suicide vest. Actually, it was a GPS tracker and the bird had been part of a wildlife project mapping these rare migrants, beloved of Arab hunters, as they fly between Central Asia and Arabia.
The second migrant was a magnificent Pallas’s gull which AAN’s Kate Clark saw bloodied and hanging from a hook in a hunter’s shop north of Kabul. This species is a king of the air, 55 to 72 centimetres in length and with a wingspan of well over a metre (142 – 170 cm). The shop-keeper insisted it was a type of duck and “very tasty”; Kate investigated and found literature on the foulness of gull-meat. She also heard how Afghan hunters’ proclivity to shoot anything that flies is endangering some species on their migratory routes.
Author: Kate Clark Date: 5 December 2014
Author: Kate Clark Date: 27 March 2013
Part 3: Birds as sport and entertainment
Birds also play an intimate part in Afghan pastimes and social life. A familiar sight in urban skies in the early morning and late afternoon are pigeons flying in dense flocks, circling and dipping, reacting to a man on a rooftop waving a stick. This is kaftar bazi or the Play of Pigeons, an Afghan national sport explored for AAN by Fabrizio Foschini who also gives advice on how to start your own flock. It is an old type of entertainment, played by the sixteenth century Mughal ruler, Akbar, as his historian described:
…The amusement which his majesty derives from the tumbling and flying of the pigeons reminds one of the ecstasy and transport of enthusiastic dervishes; he praises God for the wonders of creation.
The Play of Pigeons is competitive in that owners try to lure birds from their neighbours, but not martial, in the way that quail, partridges, cock and fighting is. Obaid Ali looks at these hugely popular pastimes in another dispatch which describes how owners groom and prepare their fighting birds, the conflict, the betting and the characters of the men involved. He also considers the gentler sport of canary ‘fighting’ where it is the bird song which is judged.
Author: Fabrizio Foschini Date: 7 June 2013
Author: Obaid Ali Date: 19 December 2013
(1) Mark has submitted a paper to Sandgrouse, the journal of the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, which focuses on birds that can be seen in central urban Kabul, especially the small migratory species that can be found in parks and gardens.
(2) More resources for birdwatchers are:
Manuel Schweizer, Raffael Aye, Tobias Roth, Birds of Central Asia, Helm Field Guides, 5 Oct 2012. An excellent, pocket-sized guidebook with first-rate pictures and detail on habitat, appearance, song etc.
The Avibase website with its bird checklist for Afghanistan.
“Biodiversity Profile of Afghanistan” in 2009 by UNEP has useful information on habitats and lists of endangered species of birds, animals and plants.