Birding in Gaza

Celebrating links across species amid a nightmare of war.

He’s a funny little chap: a sharp dresser with a sleek grey jacket, a white waistcoat, red shorts, and a small grey crest for a hat. With his shiny black eyes and stubby black beak, he’s quite the looker. Like the chihuahua of the bird world, the tufted titmouse has no idea he’s tiny. He swaggers right up to the feeder, shouldering bigger birds out of the way.

A few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have known a tufted titmouse from a downy woodpecker. (We have those, too, along with red-bellied woodpeckers, who really should have been named for their bright orange mohawks). This spring I decided to get to know my feathered neighbors with whom I’m sharing an island off Cape Cod, Massachusetts. So I turned up last Saturday for a Birding 101 class, where I learned, among other things, how to make binoculars work effectively while still wearing glasses.

Birds fly over the Jerash Palestinian Refugee Camp in this 2011 image. Gaza’s Mediterranean coast attracts shorebirds, and Wadi Gaza, a river-fed ravine and floodplain that snakes its way across the middle of Gaza, is home to more than 100 bird species, along with rare amphibians and other riparian creatures. ​Photo by Omar Chatriwala.

A male Palestine sunbird (Cinnyris osea osea). Palestine’s national bird, the sunbird is a symbol of freedom and movement. Photo by Charles James Sharp.

A female Palestine sunbird. Photo by Eran Finkle.

At Birding 101, I met around 15 birders (and proto-birders like me) whose ages skewed towards my (ancient!) end of the scale. Not all were old, however, or white; we were a motley bunch. Among us was a man my age with such acute and educated hearing that he (like many birders) identified species by call as we walked. I asked him if, when he hears a bird he knows, he also sees it in his mind.

“It’s funny you should ask,” he responded. “I once spent almost a year in a hospital, being treated for cancer. I lost every sense but my hearing and got used to listening instead of looking. So, yes, I see them when I hear them.”

Human-Bird Connections

I’m not expecting to convince everyone who reads this to grab a pair of binoculars and start scanning the treetops, but it’s worth thinking a bit about those tiny dinosaurs and their connections to us human beings. They have a surprising range of abilities, from using tools and solving complicated puzzles to exhibiting variations in regional cultures. My bird-listening friend was telling me about how the song sparrows in Maine begin their trills with the same four notes as the ones here in Cape Cod, but what follows is completely different, as if they’re speaking another dialect. Some birds cooperate with humans by hunting with us. Others, like Alex, the world-famous grey parrot, have learned to decode words in our language, recognize shapes and colors, and even count as high as six. (If you’d like to know more, take a look at The Bird Way by Jennifer Ackerman.)

We owe a lot to birds. Many of us eat them, or at least their eggs. In fact, the more I know about chickens, in particular, the harder it becomes to countenance the way they’re “farmed” in this country, whether for their meat or their eggs. Most chickens destined for dinner plates are raised by farmers contracted to big chicken brands like Tyson or super-stores like Walmart and Costco. They live surrounded by their own feces and, as the New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof has written, over the last half-century, they’ve been bred to grow extremely fast and unnaturally large (more than four times as big as the average broiler in 1957):

“The chickens grow enormous breasts, because that’s the meat consumers want, so the birds’ legs sometimes splay or collapse. Some topple onto their backs and then can’t get up. Others spend so much time on their bellies that they sometimes suffer angry, bloody rashes called ammonia burns; these are a poultry version of bed sores.”

Those factory farms threaten not only chickens but many mammals, including humans, because they provide an incubation site for bird flus that can cross the species barrier.

Birding in Gaza

Many of us, myself included a few times a year, do eat birds, but an extraordinary number of people all over the world are also beguiled and delighted by them in their wild state. People deeper into bird culture than I am make a distinction between birdwatchers — anyone who pays a bit of attention to birds and can perhaps identify a few local species like the handsome rock dove, better known as a pigeon — and birders, people who devote time (and often money) to the practice, who may travel to see particular birds, and who most likely maintain a birding life list of every species they’ve spotted.

Mandy and Lara Sirdah of Gaza City are birders. Those twin sisters, now in their late forties, started photographing birds in their backyard almost a decade ago. They began posting their pictures on social media, eventually visiting marshlands and other sites of vibrant bird activity in the Gaza Strip. They’re not trained biologists, but their work documenting the birds of Gaza was crucial to the publication of that territory’s first bird checklist in 2023.

If it weren’t for the Israeli occupation — and now the full-scale war that has killed more than 34,000 people, 72 percent of them women and children, and damaged or destroyed 62 percent of all housing — Gaza would be ideal for birding. Like much of the Middle East, the territory lies under one of the world’s great flyways for millions of migrating birds. Its Mediterranean coast attracts shorebirds. Wadi Gaza, a river-fed ravine and floodplain that snakes its way across the middle of Gaza, is home to more than 100 bird species, as well as rare amphibians and other riparian creatures. In other words, that strip of land is a birder’s paradise.

Or it would be a paradise, except that, as the Daily Beast reported a year ago (long before the current war began):

“Being a bird-watcher in Gaza means facing endless restrictions. Israel controls Gaza’s territorial waters, airspace, and the movement of people and goods, except at the border with Egypt. Most Palestinians who grew up in Gaza since the closure imposed in 2007, when Hamas seized control from the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, have never left the 25-by-7-mile strip.”

Gazan birders encounter other barriers, as well. Even if they can afford to buy binoculars or cameras with telephoto lenses, the Israeli government views such equipment as having “dual use” potential (that is, possibly serving military as well as civilian purposes) and so makes those items very difficult to acquire. It took the Sirdahs, for example, five months of wrangling and various permission documents simply to get their birding equipment into Gaza.

Getting equipment in was hard enough, but getting out of Gaza, for any reason, has become nearly impossible for its Palestinian residents. Along with most of its 2.3 million inhabitants, the sisters simply couldn’t leave the territory, even before the present nightmare, to attend birding conferences, visit exhibitions of their photography, or receive awards for their work. They were imprisoned on a strip of land that’s about the size of the island in Massachusetts where I’ve been watching birds lately. When I try to imagine life in Gaza today, I sometimes think about what it would be like to shove a couple of million people into this tiny place, chase them with bombs and missiles from one end of it to the other, and then start all over again, as Israel seems to be about to do in the southern Gazan city of Rafah with its million-plus refugees.

Wiping Out Knowledge, and Knowledge Workers

The Sirdahs collaborated on their bird checklist project with Abdel Fattah Rabou, a much-honored professor of environmental studies at the Islamic University of Gaza. Rabou himself has devoted many years to the study and conservation of birds and other wildlife in Gaza. The Islamic University of Gaza was one of the first institutional targets of the current war. It was bombed by the Israeli Defense Forces on October 11, 2023. Since then, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the project of wiping out Gaza’s extensive repositories of knowledge and sites of learning has essentially been completed:

“The destruction of Gaza’s universities began with the bombing of the Islamic University in the first week of the war and continued with airstrikes on Al-Azhar University on Nov. 4. Since then, all of Gaza’s academic institutions have been destroyed, as well as many schools, libraries, archives, and other educational institutions.”

Indeed, the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights has observed that “with more than 80 percent of schools in Gaza damaged or destroyed, it may be reasonable to ask if there is an intentional effort to comprehensively destroy the Palestinian education system, an action known as ‘scholasticide,’” UN experts report:

“After six months of military assault, more than 5,479 students, 261 teachers and 95 university professors have been killed in Gaza, and over 7,819 students and 756 teachers have been injured — with numbers growing each day. At least 60 percent of educational facilities, including 13 public libraries, have been damaged or destroyed and at least 625,000 students have no access to education. Another 195 heritage sites, 227 mosques and three churches have also been damaged or destroyed, including the Central Archives of Gaza, containing 150 years of history. Israa University, the last remaining university in Gaza, was demolished by the Israeli military on Jan. 17, 2024.”

I wanted to know whether Professor Rabou was among those 95 university faculty killed so far in the Gaza war, so I did what those of us with Internet access do these days: I googled him and found his Facebook page. He is, it turns out, still living and still posting, most recently about the desperate conditions — illness, pollution, sewage rash — experienced by refugees in temporary shelter centers near him. A few days earlier, he’d uploaded a more personal photograph: a plastic bag of white stuff, inscribed with blue Arabic lettering. “The first drop of rain,” he wrote, “Alhamdulillah [thank God], the first bag of flour enters my house in months as a help.”

The Sirdah twins, too, still remain alive, and they continue to post on their Instagram account.

Along with scholasticide, Gaza is living through an ecocide, a vastly sped-up version of the one our species seems hell-bent on spreading across the planet. As the Guardian reports, Gaza has lost almost half its tree cover and farmland, with much of the latter “reduced to packed earth.” And the news only gets worse: “[S]oil and groundwater have been contaminated by munitions and toxins; the sea is choked with sewage and waste; the air polluted by smoke and particulate matter.” Gaza has become, and could remain for years to come, essentially unlivable. And yet millions of people must try to live there. At what point, one wonders, do the “-cides” — scholastic-, eco-, and the rest — add up to genocide?

Birds of Gaza

Gaza’s wild birds aren’t the only birds in Gaza. Caged songbirds can evidently still be bought in markets and some of Rafah’s desperate inhabitants seek them out, hoping their music will mask the sounds of war. Voice of America recounts the story of a woman evacuee from northern Gaza who, halfway through her journey south, realized that she’d left her birds behind. She returned to rescue her caged avian friends, displaying a deep and tender affection for her winged companions. However, Professor Rabou is less sanguine about the practice. “As a people under occupation,” he says, “we shouldn’t put birds in cages.”

Birds of Gaza” also happens to be the name of an international art project created to remember the individual children killed in the war. The premise is simple: children around the world choose a specific child who has died and draw, paint, or fabricate a bird in his or her honor. Participants can choose from, God help us, a database of over 6,500 children who have died in Gaza since last October, then upload photos of their creations to the Birds of Gaza website. From Great Britain to South Africa to Japan, children have been doing just that.

Did you know that Gaza — well, Palestine — even has a national bird? The Palestine sunbird is a gorgeous creature, crowned in iridescent green and blue, and sporting a curved beak perfect for extracting nectar from plants. The West Bank Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar designed a postage stamp celebrating the sunbird. “This bird is a symbol of freedom and movement,” he says. “It can fly anywhere.”

Birding for a Better World

Back in the United States, the Feminist Bird Club (with chapters across North America and Europe) is committed to making birding accessible to everyone, especially people who may not have had safe access to the outdoors in the past. “There is no reason why we can’t celebrate birds and support our most cherished beliefs in equity and justice at the same time,” they say. “For us, it’s not either/or.” Last year they published Birding for a Better World, a book about how people can genuinely connect with beings — avian and human — whose lives are very different from theirs. They sponsor a monthly virtual Birders for Palestine action hour, in which participants can learn what they can do to support the people of Palestine, including their birders.

As I watch a scrum of brilliant yellow goldfinches scrabbling for a perch on the bird feeder in my yard, knowing that, on this beautiful little island, I’m about as safe as a person can be, I think about the horrors going on half a world away, paid for, at least in part, with my taxes. Indeed, Congress just approved billions more dollars in direct military aid for Israel, even as the State Department released its 2023 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. As the Jerusalem Post reports, in the section on Israel, the report documents “more than a dozen types of human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary detention, conflict-related sexual violence or punishment, and the punishment of family members for alleged offenses by a relative.”

Somehow, it’s cheering to imagine that, in spite of everything, there are still a few people birding in a devastated Gaza.

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