Nature Notes: Cairo Chorus



Mon, 18 May 2015 - 01:19 GMT


Mon, 18 May 2015 - 01:19 GMT

By Richard Hoath

I am teaching a travel writing course this semester at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the slight irony is that because I am teaching travel writing I am not traveling. My students’ third assignment was to write a piece about a place or an experience or an event that was quintessentially Egyptian, that you would have to be here and nowhere else to experience or witness. One of my students is a very promising naturalist. She has a real eye for the birds and animals around her but more, she has an ear. My suggestion to her was that she write a piece about a Cairo dawn chorus. The dawn chorus is basically the birds getting up and starting their day and my surmise was that by listening to the calls of the various birds, anyone waking up in Cairo should be able to ascertain from avian chortles alone that they were indeed in Cairo or at least in Egypt. It was the perfect student assignment. It involved laying in bed all morning, not opening your eyes, no reading and until later, no writing. The possible protégé did not take me up on this uniquely relaxing research exercise so, grabbing the chance to lie in bed all morning with my eyes closed in the cause of research and writing, I took up my own offer. How unique was Cairo’s dawn chorus?

The definitive answer came in the very first few minutes. Awake before the fajr, the dawn prayer, perhaps in anticipation of a potential ornithological extravaganza to come, the pre-dawn darkness was cleft apart by the hysterical shrieking of the karawaan, the Senegal Thick-knee. This is an enigmatic wading bird 37 centimeters long and largely streaked brown and beige above and white below. The thick knee of the Thick-knee refers to the swollen tarsal joint on the yellow legs but the bird’s most apparent feature – other than that voice — is its huge yellow-irised eyes. This is a nocturnal bird, cryptic and secretive by day and not much more obvious by night except through its call, an incessant pvi pvi pvi pvi pvi that rises and falls and fades before rising again. It is normally a bird of the riverside and sand bars and one of the best places to find it is at dusk on the large rocks north of Kitchener Island in Aswan.

But in Cairo it has adopted the flat rooftops of the cityscape as surrogate sand bars and its call is one of the characteristic sounds of the Cairene night. It has a range extending over much of East and West Africa but I have never known it as such an urban bird as in Cairo. So minutes into my experiment and before dawn had even slightly cracked let alone broken, my ears told me that I had to be in Cairo. For those who do not trust their ears and want Othello’s “ocular proof” try the Gezira club Golf Course after dark but expect to whip out a hefty LE 100 as a non-member for the privilege.

What followed as dawn did begin to break was rather more prosaic. It was the House Sparrows first, the ubiquitous small brown bird, the male of which is subtly resplendent, well less than dowdy, in gray cap, black bib and streaked upperparts. It is ubiquitous here but in my native London it has undergone a catastrophic decline. I could not be in London. The reason for its decline there has been suggested as increased air pollution except that air pollution there is not increasing and even if it were Cairo’s smog tops it many times over. Another possible reason is the lack of nest sites and anyone appreciative of London property prices might well empathize with that little theorem. House Sparrows at dawn do not sing, they just cheep but they cheep in their thousands in Cairo and it is the wall of sound against which the soloists perform.

The earliest of these is perhaps the Laughing Dove, also known as the Palm Dove. It is the elegant slim line dove of the city and country with a tortoiseshell back, gray head and neck with a black necklace, blue-gray wing panel and slender white margined tail. Its call, from which it earns its first name, is a rising and falling croon, hardly a guffaw, that may be rendered as a five-syllable do do dooh dooh do.

And then enter not the dragon but the Common Bulbul. This drab brown bird the size of a small thrush might do nothing for the eye but its rambling yet musical calls and song are one of the most distinctive features of a Cairene chorus. The calls are varied and musical but unstructured. In parts of Cairo such as Zamalek and south to Dahshour the much tighter melody of the Blackbird might be heard – even richer and much tighter and more structured. I have heard it on occasion here in Garden City and suspect the manicured shrubberies of the British Embassy are an ideal nest site.

The chorus is not all musical. Common Kestrels, a small resident falcon, are also about and like the karawaan they shriek but with more consistent urgency and by day. They will be breeding in my neighborhood and the cries will be contact calls between male and female as they go about their nuptials. The harsh kraar of a disgruntled Hooded Crow can be heard or the incessant winding chur of the Graceful Prinia. The latter is a slender ball of feathers with a long and graduated tail and a voice that belies its diminutive 11 centimeter length. Listen out also for its harsher alarm call rendered as either tsiit or chiig (bird calls are notoriously hard to put into writing and I take these renderings from experience and from Porter and Aspinall’s Birds of the Middle East available at AUC bookstores).

As the House Sparrow flocks melt, thaw and resolve themselves into twittering small parties, the dominant background cacophony, especially in spring and especially in central Cairo, comes from wheeling and reeling and hurtling flocks of Pallid Swifts. In early morning their screams fill the air as they hawk for insects in sometimes huge numbers over the city. They are not flamboyant, decked out in somber gray-brown with a paler throat and with long, slender scythe-like wings. Cities can be defined by their swifts and Cairo is defined by the Pallid. In England the dreamy spires of Oxford play host to one of the most studied bird populations ever, the city’s Common Swifts, near identical to the Pallid but darker. And Istanbul has in summer that behemoth of swifts, the Alpine Swift, all 21 centimeters of it with a shriek to match and a bright white throat and belly and brown breast band. Watch out for it over Egypt this month in small numbers. It was described in one Turkish Bird Report as “the most obvious bird of the dreary high-rise suburbs” but it seems a bit unfair to describe the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque where I saw them as “dreary high-rise suburbs.”

As it is late April, later April than my editor would like, the European Bee-eaters are flying over with their soft but far-reaching and constant pruup filling the air. To see them, incredibly tropical in turquoise and yellow and chestnut and green as they swoop and sweep over and around will sadly necessitate getting up.

So could my student have written about a Cairo dawn chorus as uniquely Egyptian, indeed uniquely Cairene? I think the answer is yes. The karawan pretty well nailed it instantly but the mélange of sparrow and bulbul and of swifts and warblers, falcons and doves all give the city a unique wake-up call. You can even narrow down the district. Tremulous mews would mean Black Kites and probably Maadi. Harsh — very harsh — squawks would mean Rose-ringed Parakeets and either Zamalek or Heliopolis but expanding elsewhere. And friends from Zamalek who are daily victims of their early morning squawks really wish they were elsewhere.



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