Life with the birds on the Aras River

(I should have posted this a long time ago, as it relates to a trip back in April. Still, hope you enjoy.)

On the Aras River in Iğdır province, near the border with Armenia, I spent the month of April volunteering for the wildlife charity KuzeyDoğa.

I have written many times about the ecological issues affecting Turkey, and won’t do so again now. I did a short piece for bloggers’ collective Mashallah about Aras, which you can see here.

Whilst staying in a village next to the wetlands that fringe the river, where KuzeyDoğa runs a bird-ringing station, I saw some 100 different species of birds. Each day from 5am to 8pm we would check the long mist nets stretched over the reed beds used to catch them.

The species would change according to the time of day. At dusk a mass of barn swallows (kirlangıç) would come into the nets, as many as 40 an evening. It was the first check in the morning, however, that yielded the greatest variety of species.

When it was my turn to tour the nets, I felt childlike excitement, praying I might find some rarity and relishing the delicate process of extracting the bird from the mesh.

On the 5am round I came across a scop’s owl (ishakkuşu), a soft bundle of grey and brown feathers. It had fallen asleep in the net and as I began untangling it, its yellow eyes drowsily opened and settled on me with a look of affronted dignity.

Different birds would react in surprisingly different ways to being handled, measured, and ringed (a small metal ring containing an identification code is put around the leg using a pair of pliers).

Some would struggle violently, pecking and grasping with their talons. Others would stare at their captors, their beaks open in mute incomprehension.

Others would seem oddly calm, like a sparrowhawk (atmaca) that we took one day. As its legs were being measured it looked on with rapt detachment, like a patient watching an operation performed on his anaesthetized limb.

It is hard not to anthropomorphize animals when seeing them up close in this way. This is frowned on in modern biology, which rightly regards it as unscientific to believe one can intuit the inner life of an animal from expressions that may bear only coincidental similarities to human ones.

Our efforts at understanding our fellow creatures are guided by empirical observation: the close study of habits, the measurement of proportions, neurochemistry, and so on.

As someone from a non-scientific background, I find it frustrating to know that my observations of animals and responses to them are so uninformed, so far from the kind of precise insights that are needed to save some of these species, and which may perhaps also lead to a deeper kind of empathy.

But sometimes it was hard not to transpose a human emotion onto the behavior of a bird.

I am thinking especially of the moment when they were released. Most would erupt into flight as soon as one’s hand opened, and many would sing as they flew off. At this moment, it was impossible for me not to believe that the bird was singing for the joy of escape.

Many scientists will tell you, however, that contrary to popular wisdom birds do not sing for joy. I asked my more experienced colleagues at the station what this behavior might mean. None were sure, but one suggested it was an alarm call, signaling danger to other birds. Another thought they could be contact calls, and that the bird was seeking a mate lost during capture.

When I spoke to a more experienced ornithologist, he too was unsure. “They might just be saying ‘Fuck you, I’m free’,” he suggested.

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