Context & Culture

The ‘Bagram Duck’: Migrant bird killed north of Kabul and offered as game


If you drive to the Bagram detention centre, you pass by a row of small shops selling birds. Live finches and other wild song birds hop about in cages which hang among dead game birds on hooks, ready for the pot. The well-watered lands of the Shomali Plain, home to waders, ducks and many other birds, are also popular with hunters. A few weeks ago, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, saw this bird hanging up; according to the shopkeeper, it was a species of duck and ‘very tasty’. It was in fact a gull – a Pallas’ or Great Black-Headed Gull, with the beautiful Latin name of Ichthyaetus ichthyaetusan. An adult in breeding plumage, it had been on its biannual migratory journey of thousands of kilometres when it had the misfortune to find itself in the crosshairs of a Shomali hunter’s gun.

‘It is a kaf khorak,’ (a foam eater), said the shopkeeper, ‘a species of duck and yes, it’s very delicious.’ How funny and unsettling to see such a king of the air bloodied and hanging from a hook in landlocked Afghanistan. This breed of gull is highly migratory, crossing the continent twice a year, overwintering in the Indian Subcontinent or Arabia at the coast or on large inland lakes and rivers and then, in spring, heading to the marshes and islands of Russia, Mongolia, the Ukraine and Kazakhstan to breed. It is huge, the third largest gull in the world, 55–72 cm in length and with a wingspan of well over a metre (142 to 170 cm). Males weigh in on average at 1.6 kg and the heavier females at 1.22 kg.(1)

The Pallas’ is just one of nine species of gulls and terns reported in Afghanistan – with a further six species cited as rare or accidental sightings. Check here for the full, wonderfully long list of the birds of Afghanistan.

Calling it a type of duck is actually funnier – Pythonesquely funny – in English than in Dari where the usual word for duck, murgh abi, literally ‘water fowl’, could logically also cover gulls. And indeed, why would Afghans, so far from the sea and living in a dry country and even despite those nine native species of gull and just fewer than 30 species of ducks, swans and goose, need to differentiate further?

That being said, there is an Afghan propensity to group families and even whole classes of wildlife under one name – to use mahi for all manner of fish and ahu, not just for deer, but any horned or antlered ungulate – antelope, ibex, etc. Ahu is used even when individual Dari names for a species or at least a family exist – ghazal (gazelle), for example, or markhor (the English also use the Dari name – literally snake-eater- for this magnificent species of spiral-horned goat).

I have more argument with the shopkeeper promising me the gull would be delicious. These are big birds, but look at the weight to length and width ratio and it’s clear, they are mainly feathers and hollow bones. I can’t imagine there was much flesh on this specimen, especially given its long flight from the south and, from all accounts of eating gull, it would be a stretch of the imagination to call the meat tasty.

Sifting through postings on the internet, I did manage to find some gull recipes, but they are clearly dishes of very last resort. On St Kilda, for example, a tiny archipelago of islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the north-western coast of Scotland, 64 kilometres distant even from the nearest other island, a land rainy, cold and windy, eating sea birds and their eggs was integral to locals’ survival for a couple of millennia or so (the islands are now uninhabited by people).

As to how gulls taste, there are a few accounts. In coastal Britain during the Second World War, a man reported his grandmother describing her father bringing back a couple of gulls to supplement the family’s state rations; they were, she reported, ‘really greasy and tasted awful when prepared as chicken.’ On the same page, Ron C, once marooned, he said, off the coast of Korea, ate gull and said, ‘although it served to fill the void, it was definitely not a delicacy. It tasted like raw fish, as would be expected.’ Most famously, according to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s non-fictional ‘The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor’, the meat of (albeit raw) Caribbean gulls cannot be stomached even in the most desperate of times:

Mr Velasco, made cunning by desperation, waited until [the gull] started to peck at his blistered skin before he grabbed it, broke its neck and tore the feathers from its flesh. But even in his critical condition, the sight and the smell of it disgusted him. ‘It’s easy to say that after five days of hunger you can eat anything. But though you may be starving, you still feel nauseated by a mess of warm, bloody feathers with a strong odour of raw fish and of mange.’ In the end his repugnance proved stronger than his instinct for survival, and he threw the mutilated sea gull into the sea. (2)

Available recipes are all very heavy duty: boil the carcass for 2 hours, then fry its minced flesh in a hot pan of sesame oil, advises one; soak the bird in heavily salted, cold water for a total of 36 hours, changing the water three times, to try to get rid of the fishy taste, says another, then simmer for 3 hours (both recipes are here). Another correspondent recommends poaching your seagull to the following recipe:

1 medium whole bird
1 large rock

Place both in large uncovered saucepan. Fill saucepan with cold water. Bring to boil over outdoor fire. Bury the seagull. Enjoy the rock.

Passing gull off as edible duck – which commands high prices, of course – is one thing, but why shoot it in the first place? This quarry is less surprising when you consider how much the people of this part of Shomali like their hunting. ‘Especially the people of the Sayyedkhel,’ reports my AAN co-worker, Fabrizio Foschini, ‘who, from about the age of 6, shoot everything that moves. The kids are given mushkush (mice-killer) rifles at a very early age, and they fill the bazaar of Charikar with dead plovers, curlews, stilts and snipes.’

Another bird expert (see his list of Afghan birds spotted in Kandahar in an earlier blog here), was aghast when he saw the picture of the dead Pallas’ gull: ‘I wish there was something we could do,’ he said, ‘to stop the senseless shooting and trapping of all those birds in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) as many are now becoming endangered on their migratory routes.’

As for eating it, this was, he said, ‘not recommended!’

(1) Facts and figures on the dimensions of the Pallas’s Gull comes, via Google, from:
Sergey Panayotov Birds in Bulgaria
Klaus Malling Olsen and Hans Larsson Gulls: Of North America, Europe, and Asia Princeton University Press (2004)
Harrison, Peter Seabirds: An Identification Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1991)
John B. Dunning Jr. (Editor) CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses by CRC Press (1992)

(2) Gabriel Garcia Marquez The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor (translated Randolph Hogan) New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1970) (Written in 1955) Text taken from this New York Times review.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture