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See Inside February 2011

The Bird Man of Baghdad

An unassuming 32-year-old ornithologist, in the midst of war and chaos, continues to add to the store of knowledge about Iraq's assorted bird life



Omar Fadhil Nature Iraq

Name: Omar Fadhil
Title: M.A. student in biology and laboratory teacher, University of Baghdad
Location: Baghdad, Iraq

I grew up in the city of Bag­h­­dad, but on weekends the men in my family—my brother, grandfather, father and I—would go off into the coun­try to practice falconry. Passed down through the generations, this sport is some­­thing I still love.

As a child, I became fascinated by birds of prey, like falcons and other raptors, but also by the birds that serve as prey, like the houbara (above), a timid, turkeylike species. Birds became my life, and I continue to pursue that passion through my work at the University of Baghdad, where I do research on the ecology of endangered falcons and other birds of prey. My job takes me to every part of the country, even areas that are still very dangerous and that have been torn apart by war.

In the spring of 2009 I got a call from a group that I collaborate with that had used radio/GPS tags to track a critically endangered migratory bird called the sociable lapwing to an area near Tikrit, the ancestral home of Saddam Hussein. The birds migrate every spring from Sudan to their summer home in Kazakhstan.

Bird-watching in Iraq is not like bird-watching in a U.S. national park. To make these trips, I need official endorsements from the police and various ministries. After receiving the requisite permissions, we set out with a convoy of 15 soldiers and made our way to the point near the Euphrates River where the lapwing had set down. We scoured the countryside for 13 days, but the birds, always highly mobile during the course of a migration, had already moved on. The area was a resting spot not just for lapwings but also for Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and months later two long-sought leaders were killed near where we had searched.

Whenever I go out, villagers always ask, “What the hell are you doing here?” I never engage them directly. Instead I get out my binoculars, set up the camera tripod and take out my bird books. I show them pictures of the birds I’m looking for and, when possible, let them look through the binoculars at the birds themselves.

After a time, they often warm to me. They point to a bird in the book and say, “We’ve seen this one but not that one.” They become my scouts. Despite the war, I have found six new species that had never been seen before in Iraq.

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