Wednesday, April 14, 2010

I have a regular visitor in my yard these days – an odd creature, no question about that. Every time I see the little guy out there I run for the camera. Invariably, though, by the time I get back, he – or she – has flown off.

But here he is. Looks like something put together by a committee, don’t you think? Such an unusual assemblage of colors and patterns! My visitor has an even bolder black and white chevron pattern to his wings. Very strange looking bird. Still, he digs his very long beak into the sand and seems pleased with what he finds there. The pickings must be good.

The first couple of times he came, I was puzzled about what kind of a bird he might be. I sought out Beersheba’s Primary Keeper of Odd Knowledge, my friend Aaron, and from the briefest of descriptions, Aaron identified my visitor as a HOOPOE, which just happens to be Israel’s National Bird.

Huh! Who knew? A royal guest!

Now that I looked into the whole ‘National Bird’ issue a little bit, it’s actually quite interesting.

We didn’t have a national bird until just about a year ago, when the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel launched a year-long program to select a National Bird. Some 155,000 Israelis participated in the first level of choosing our mascot. Then in December 2008, 1,000 bird lovers convened at Tel Aviv University and cut a very long list down to 50.

Ultimately that list was cut again to ten finalists: The Bulbul, the Red Falcon, the Goldfinch, the Biblical Vulture, the Spur-winged Plover, the Honey-Sucker, the Warbler, the White-chested Kingfisher, the White Barn Owl and of course the Hoopoe.

Voting ensued, and the Hoopoe won with 35% of the official votes. YNet, a internet news service, also conducted a voting contest, and the Hoopoe won 20% of the vote from internet surfers, too.

The Hoopoe won the plurality, but almost everyone weighed in with their own opinions.

President Shimon Peres led the pack. As Israel’s official ribbon cutter, baby-kisser and dinner guest (it appears that no Jewish or Israeli function anywhere in the entire world -- most especially dinner parties – are permitted to occur unless that grinning old gad-about is there, too) Anyway, Peres admitted that his favorite had been the Biblical Vulture, but then added, as any good Leftist would, that “It’s a pity the dove wasn’t nominated.

"The dove is equipped with a homing system, which can lead it home from anywhere it may be. Despite limitations and long distances the dove is a true Zionist," he said.

Okay -- that’s better reasoning than the norm, for Peres.

Many people favored the Bulbul, including Haaretz, the only Hebrew-language Arabic newspaper in the Middle East, as Steve Plaut likes to say.

In a truly clever feature by Avirama Golan, Haaretz began by poo-pooing Peres’ lament, that the dove wasn’t listed. “The dove is a sanctimonious fowl that waited in false modesty until the raven failed in its mission, and only then consented to fly away to return holding the olive branch,” Haaretz sneered. “It’s become an overly festive symbol. The term that it represents is exalted and vague, and waning from awareness.”

Neither -- of course – did the Biblical Vulture meet Haaretz’ exacting standards. (Maybe if it had been called the Koran Vulture it would have won Haaretz’ approval.) In any event, Haaretz eliminated that one too by noting that the Biblical Vulture was on the ‘endangered species’ list, and did we really want such a creature symbolizing Israel?

No, the bird that should have been chosen, Haaretz said, was the Bulbul – an Arabic word, by the way. In other parts of the world birds of the same family are called nightingales. So Haaretz goes on: “Bulbul suits us because of its name - stolen from the Arabic like humus and falafel, which became the ‘Israeli national dish’ exported in our name - and because of its distribution: It is present everywhere in Israel. It flies in circles and wanders around, but remains local. And also because of the noise that it generates without interruption.”

That’s the Bulbul, above. Haaretz continues: “The Bulbul, unlike any other bird, does not limit itself to chirping and dancing as a form of communication. In other words, a handshake and polite greeting is not its style. Two bulbuls that meet are so overcome by affection that they trample each other's heads, touch, taunt each other, and jump around as if they ate from the same mess kit for years. In general, the bulbul's posse comes before everything. In veteran couples they settle on branches of a loquat tree. Representatives of each sex or a pair of same-sexed bulbuls are typically monogamous, but the important thing is that the gang is all there and that they are never alone.”

The Bulbul had another problem -- probably ultimately the reason it wasn’t selected: In Hebrew, “bulbul” is kiddie-slang for what American kids call a “pee pee”. Did we really want a National Bird with a name like that?

Of course Haaretz rejected that criticism: “That folksy usage of the unpretentious bird's name to describe the male genital organ proves the extent to which the bird is loved by the masses. This is not a crude or insulting expletive, but a childish term of affection that illustrates how Israelis relate to themselves: oversized, pampered infants forever.”

In conclusion, Haaretz summed up their choice of the Bulbul: “There is no doubt that the bulbul is ours: loud, quick to anger, lavishing gregarious affection, and in love with his friends. He makes noise as he brags to his pals about his exploits, and calls himself affectionate names. He doesn't stop singing even as he is joyfully robbing fruit from others in true bulbul style.”

So that’s Haaretz for you.

In any event, the Hoopoe won. National headlines at the time were funny – several read, “Non-Kosher Bird selected as Israel’s National Bird”.

What? They thought someone was planning on EATING the thing? Good grief.

Those who voted for the Hoopoe probably had their own reasons, but for the record, the Hoopoe is mentioned in both Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14: 'And the stork, the heron after her kind, the lapwing, and the bat.'

The ‘Lapwing’ is thought to be today’s Hoopoe. The Hebrew word is dukiphath which is hard to identify today. Some suggest it was a common domestic fowl, others say it’s the cock-of-the-woods, but most believe the ‘Lapwing’ to be the Hoopoe.

Besides that, there’s a lovely old legend about King Solomon and the Hoopoe.

It seems that during a long journey across the desert, King Solomon was perishing from hot sun. Hoopoes came to his aid by flying in a dense mass over his head, filtering the sunlight and offering him shade. So grateful was the King that he told the Hoopoes he would give them whatever they wished. The Hoopoes consulted among themselves and finally agreed to their wish: that every Hoopoe should be given a crown of gold to wear like Solomon himself. Immediately, King Solomon granted their wish, and every Hoopoe found his head adorned with a golden crown.

But alas, after a time, the Hoopoes realized that their wish had not been wise. The golden crowns were heavy and made flying difficult. Worse than that, because of the gold, every fowler on earth was trying to catch them. Since they couldn’t either take off the golden crowns or hide them, the unfortunate Hoopoes were falling prey to predators in massive numbers.

The Hoopoes went back to King Solomon and begged him to rid them of this fatal gift. He did – instead of the golden crowns they wore before, now each was adorned with a glorious crest of feathers for a crown.

So there you have it: the Hoopoe, the Israeli National Bird, with its outrageous crown, who comes visiting almost every day.

Next thing you know, Shimon Peres will be knocking at my gate, too.

1 comment:

  1. I first noticed them here about 35 years ago, so I know they've been around at least that long. With their odd back-swept crown they looked to be prehistoric so that's how I always thought of them: a Jurrasic era relic that miraculously survived all the intervening epochs in Israel alone.