Birds are fleeing Iraq’s devastation

More than 414 bird species used to live in Iraq.
Sunday 30/09/2018
An Iraqi man holds a cockatiel for sale at the Al-Ghazel animal market in Baghdad. (AFP)
Valued creatures. An Iraqi man holds a cockatiel for sale at the Al-Ghazel animal market in Baghdad. (AFP)

BAGHDAD - War, devastation and environmental degradation that have ravaged Iraq have driven beautiful birds out of the country and threatened the few remaining. Birds that used to migrate to Iraq head to countries unspoiled by war.

Bird breeding is a widespread activity in Iraq. For hundreds of years, people in Baghdad raised many species of rare birds. They valued them, traded them and exchanged them as gifts.

“Even though the American occupation has destroyed everything in Baghdad, many old customs and inherited legacies are still alive in the city, such as keeping birds as house pets. It was a sign of taste and luxurious and good living, as well as a mark of being a Baghdadi,” said Majid Hamid, a bird breeder in Adhamiyah.

“Raising birds in Baghdadi society is a feature of luxury. Since ancient times and before the public became interested in keeping decorative birds, it was the elite and high-ranking officials who took a special interest in birds. The Babylonians and the Assyrians used homing birds as message couriers throughout the empire.”

Bird breeder Karim al-Khafaji said deteriorating environmental conditions caused the extinction of many rare bird species that used to be found in Baghdad. Following the US occupation of Baghdad and the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity, fear, death and displacement, many people who kept and bred birds left.

Wissal Hamid Ibrahim, a breeder of ornamental birds in Baghdad, said: “Breeding ornamental birds, especially canaries and lovebirds of all kinds, has declined in Iraq because of the economic conditions and the difficulty of procuring birdfeed.

“Ghazal Market used to be a popular meeting place for bird lovers but the market was bombed three times and that drove people away, especially the upper classes who cared about these birds. So they stopped raising them.”

Ibrahim said when she had to leave Baghdad she left many canaries with a neighbour. After a while, the neighbour told her that the birds inexplicably died. Ibrahim said the birds’ death was due to the neighbour’s neglect because she did not know how to take care of them.

Rare Baghdadi birds include the yellow, red, meski, leper, grey (Rammadi), Karmali, Acha’al or the Orphali varieties of canaries, as well as homing birds such as the Iraqi, Babylonian, German Beauty, Egyptian Swift or English Carrier pigeon varieties. There are many other types with unique colours and characteristics. The birds adapted to the Iraqi environment and often nested in Iraq in the spring and summer.

Bird markets in the older areas of Baghdad are hard to miss. The most famous market remains Ghazal market due to the great variety of birds sold there and the fact that it is the oldest in Baghdad. Every Iraqi province has its own bird markets.

Biologist Anmar Wahbi Sabri said Iraq’s diverse geography, from mountainous regions to plains, plateaus and water bodies, makes for a suitable environment for different species of birds but “the slightest change in the environment negatively affects bird populations. Moreover, because of poaching, humans have a significant impact on these creatures.”

Sabri said the Houbara bustard was endemic to western Iraq and was protected before the war. Under present conditions, however, there are no restrictions or protections for the birds or fish. The lack of a governmental conservation and water management strategy led to a drought in the Hawizeh Marshes, which hosted many bird species. This affected migratory bird populations that would stop at the marshes.

Sabri said the Natural History Museum in Baghdad used to watch, care for and protect birds but, because of a lack of resources and the prevailing circumstances, the institution can no longer carry out such tasks.

Political activist and bird enthusiast Jaber Rasul al-Jabri, a resident of the United Kingdom, estimated there were more than 414 bird species that used to live in Iraq. Some of them disappeared from the area, such as the Houbara bustard, or are critically endangered due to wars destroying their habitats.

“Iraq has suffered during the last half century from the recurrence of wars and disasters that led to the destruction of its fauna in general and birds in particular, especially migratory birds, which now migrate through other areas,” he said. “The recent wars against the Islamic State made matters worse, as fresh water supplies were poisoned in the upper Tigris and Euphrates.”