The Birds of Syria
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
In the world of birds, Syria is an important country, not only for its own bird inhabitants but also for the country as a usual stopover for migrating birds. Ornithologists believe that the country’s climate and nature play an essential role in making birds think of Syria as a natural habitat. In addition to a good number of other wild birds, eagles, buzzards, and falcons are quite often seen in the mountainous regions of the country.
Studies conducted by the Syrian Ministry of State for Environment Affairs, and published jointly with the UN Environment Program indicate that there are some 312 species of birds, belonging to 57 classes, who call Syria home – most migrating in winter and returning in spring or summer. In addition to this number, there are 48 other types that are forced to fly over Syria in exceptional weather conditions.
Of the regular birds in Syria, the following categories can be identified: 143 types of immigrant birds that stop for breeding in Syria; 71 types of immigrant birds that do not breed in Syria; 83 types of birds that reside in Syria throughout winter; and 15 types of birds that reside in Syria throughout the summer. It has also been established that 53 of these bird types are considered endangered species.
Among the common breeds of birds in Syria found in the steppes and deserts are the Black Francolin, Black-winged Pratincole, Dead Sea Sparrow, Long-legged Buzzard, See-see partridge, Sand Partridge, and Striated Scope Owl. Along the country’s Mediterranean shores and coastal mountains, one discovers the Egyptian and Griffon Vultures and a whole series of migratory birds. Around Damascus and in the southern part of the country are to be found the Crimson-winged Finch, Finsch’s Wheatear, Greater Sand Plover, Lappet-faced and Egyptian Vultures, Sand Partridge, Syrian Serin, and White-throated Robin and numerous migratory birds.
In the midst of the Syrian desert, the oasis of Palmyra or Tadmur, as it is called in Arabic, provides a substantial shelter for migrant birds. It attracts a variety of species – especially important are Raptores like the Pernis Apivorus, Buteo Buteo, and Milvus Migrans. Other birds common to the area are Buteo, Aquila Chrysaetos, Cursorius Cursor, and Oenanthe. Also, the cultivated parts of the steppes to the north and west of Palmyra are important feeding and breeding areas for a large number of ducks and geese.
There are numerous globally endangered bird species who winter and at times breed in many areas of Syria. In the vast steppe area of Syria, from the Turkish border to the Euphrates Valley M.I., Evans in his excellent book, Important Bird Areas in the Middle East, lists a good number of these species. They include the Lessor Kestrel (falco naumanni), the Black Vulture (aegypius monachus), Lappet-faced Vulture (torgos tracheliotus), the Lanner Falcon (falco biarmicus). the Pigmy Cormorant (phalacrocorax angustirostris), the Houbara Bustard (chlamydotis undulata), and the Marbled Teal (marmaronetta angustirostris).
These are a few of the migratory birds which may winter and breed. However, there are others that are residents to the area. In the middle of the country, along the shores of Bahrat Homs or as it is better known, Lake Qattine, another important endangered species, the small duck (oxyura leucocephala) usually winters.
The Syrian satellite station has aired an in-depth documentary concerning the migration of birds to and from Syria and covered good footage of the various species inherent in that country. Darem Sabbagh, Professor of Ornithology at the University of Damascus, who wrote the scenario for the film, explained that his mission as an ornithologist calls for the protection of a number of species of birds threatened with extinction as a result of illegal hunting which has been banned in Syria since 1994.
In 2002, a breeding colony of the critically endangered Bald Ibis (geronticus eremita), known in Arabic as Al-Nuq, was discovered in the Syrian al-Badia (desert) near Palmyra. The seven birds found may well be the last survivors of what is called the “Eastern population” of the Bald Ibis. A legendary and iconic bird, the Bald Ibis, whose global population dropped down to 97.8 % during the period 1900 – 2002, is one of the rarest and most critically endangered wildlife species on earth.
Due to its rareness, the Bald Ibis could stimulate a sense of responsibility and pride in the people of Syria toward their unique natural bird heritage. Being an important country, not only for its own bird inhabitants but also as a usual stopover for migrating birds, Syria is a critical Middle Eastern land in saving bird populations from extinction in that part of the world.