BEIRUT: Archeological ruins are an unlikely place to sight breeding birds, Professor Ghassan Jaradi, Lebanon’s pre-eminent ornithologist, said, but after several hours one spring day, he managed to identify one nestled in the arch of Tyre’s ancient Roman temple. Several tourists had complained of being attacked by a vicious unseen fowl, even the dogs were fearful. Jaradi went to the scene at once to investigate.
With his bird-sighting arsenal – binoculars, camera and notebook – in hand, he stood by a crumbled column overlooking the awning where the bird was supposedly hiding. He waited for hours. When his patience began to wane, Jaradi finally found what he was looking for: The bird darted from its burrow, and in one fell swoop, dashed to the ground and absconded, all in the blink of an eye.
“Lizards!” Jaradi exclaimed to The Daily Star, conjuring but a fraction of the delight felt in that moment of discovery: “The bird had settled at the site because it feeds on lizards, which are found in rocky dry places. Every time it saw a lizard, it would come out and catch it.”
Further probing would lead Jaradi to classify the bird as a lesser kestrel, a small falcon that breeds from the Mediterranean across southern Asia, to China. A summer migrating species, it often spends its winters in Africa and sometimes the Middle East.
“Lizards were abundant there,” Jaradi said. “It must have thought ‘I can nest here, I can lay my babies here, and find food to feed them until they can fend for themselves; this is a good place.’”
It is not uncommon for Jaradi to narrate the thought process of a bird in the first person; he has spent 30 years considering and reconsidering their various impulses, drives and fears. Specializing in wild bird species found in Lebanon, he said his field of study was relatively uncommon; its primary scientists include him and Lebanese National Council for Scientific Research President George Tohmeh, who was once Jaradi’s supervisor.
Jaradi conducts intensive surveys of wild bird species in Lebanon on a continual basis, mostly by embedding himself in the field and noting the presence of new species as well as the absence of previously observed ones.
He documents his findings by updating his ornithological checklist, which highlights significant changes in the status, distribution and occurrence of all species observed in Lebanon. The most updated checklist was published in 2008. Jaradi’s ornithological observations between 1999 and 2007 led to an increase in the number of recognized bird species in Lebanon from 371 to 395.
His latest findings relate to the status of 83 species, 16 of which were found to be breeding for the first time in Lebanon, including the cream-colored courser, the white-throat robin, the blue tit and the penduline tit.
Birds are typically classified according to their migratory or resident patterns, in other words, the time of year when they arrive to Lebanon and for how long they stay. Resident birds live in the country and breed all year round, whereas breeding summer visitors arrive in the spring and leave in the fall. Winter visitors arrive to hibernate and leave in the spring to breed someplace else. Migratory birds stay in Lebanon temporarily to rest before continuing on their journey elsewhere.
Migrating birds can be seen along the flyways, about 12 kilometers away from the sea. They are typically abundant over the depressions of mountain ranges, where gusts of wind carry them, easing their long-distance passage with an effortless lift.
“In this way they can travel 6,000-7,000 kilometers without expending much effort,” he said.
Bird species are diverse and adapted to different habitats. In Lebanon, one can find birds living virtually anywhere, especially in wetlands, like marshes or along the coast. The melodious calls of the western rock nuthatch can be heard along the rocky precipices of the Bekaa Valley, where it lives in nests made of mud.
The little owl is a common resident species, while the black-eared wheater spends the spring in Lebanon to breed and leaves before the winter. The bluethroat, on the other hand, is a winter visitor, and the migratory honey buzzard only passes through.
Jaradi also documents species that no longer breed in Lebanon due to widespread and reckless hunting, such as the European roller, now just a migratory bird.
Unregulated hunting practices, if left unchecked, will further endanger some bird species, Jaradi warned, and compromise certain ecosystems.
“Hunting remains the biggest threat to birds in Lebanon,” Jaradi said. “I am not against it entirely, but it should be organized, because people are shooting birds they don’t eat, just for the thrill of shooting.”
The hunting of the cuckoo, for example, has detrimental effects on Lebanese forests. The cuckoo feeds on a type of caterpillar that, if allowed to thrive in large numbers, could severely damage pine trees. The jay is another example, as are raptors, such as eagles and falcons.
“The jay plays a role in the propagation of forests,” Jaradi explained. “It eats pine seeds, and before the winter, it becomes afraid that food sources might become scarce, so it takes as many seeds as it can and buries them in the soil. Fortunately, it forgets where these seeds are buried, so they eventually grow into new shoots, and like this, the forest is regenerated.”
Jaradi warned, “In this way, hunting, if it isn’t organized, will destroy our ecosystems.”
Jaradi’s reluctance to condemn hunting altogether might spawn from a nostalgic attachment to the sport spawning from his childhood days. Ironically, hunting also played a part in impelling his career. “I was a hunter once myself once,” he said.
One day while hunting, Jaradi met Joel Neshvander, a French bird expert, who approached him to inquire about the birds he had shot that day.
“We got into an argument about which ones were rare and which ones were common,” Jaradi said.
From that day on, Jaradi became Neshvander’s research assistant, a job that eventually paved the way for him to study wild bird species in France.
Hunting birds was the old-fashioned way of studying birds, Jaradi said: “We would shoot them and measure their feathers and make comparisons with species from the same family.”
“When I arrived at the university in France, my instructors asked me what materials I had read,” Jaradi said. “I shrugged and said ‘A gun,’” leaving his academic superiors aghast.
“They said, ‘Here, sir, we don’t study with guns,” he laughed. “I stopped hunting from that day on.”
Nevertheless, Jaradi said, given the minuscule size of his academic community in Lebanon, he believes he was lucky to have traveled abroad.
“ Lebanon is not an easy place to study birds,” he said, “When I told people I was going to study birds in France 40 years ago, people thought I was crazy, they told me to go to medical school or law school instead.”
“But I had found an opportunity to go abroad on scholarship and study what I liked, and I knew I would get work,” he said.
Jaradi has facilitated the travel of promising students in the past and secured financial support for them, but most changed career paths once abroad.
“Nowadays people want to have incentives, if they are unsure what they might get out of studying wild birds, they won’t do it.”
The expert maintained that people could learn a lot from birds. With the prevalence of airplanes, an invention based on the aerodynamics of a bird’s flight, people have already made incredible technological advances. But in terms of tolerance and coexistence, Jaradi said people should learn from the vulture.
“Once they spot a carcass, about 20 of them will spiral down to the ground and take turns eating. Maybe the strongest and the most aggressive will start eating first, prompting the others to start grunting, which means ‘Enough! Now it’s our turn!’ and the aggressive one will make room for them so they can all eat,” Jaradi said. “People should learn from this example.”