By Jonathan Rosen, the editorial director of Nextbook, and the author, most recently, of The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 10/06/08):
Late last month, Israel announced that it had named the hoopoe as its national bird. The long-billed hoopoe, which has a punky orange crest tipped black, is barely mentioned in the Bible (as an unclean animal that may not be eaten) but it plays a role in rabbinic literature and in Islamic lore as well. It is celebrated, among other things, as the messenger that shuttles between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. It is in other words well suited to the symbolic burden the country has placed on it.
The idea that birds can be emissaries to a battered world — like the dove and raven sent out by Noah — motivated Israel’s decision to adopt a national bird as part of its commemoration of 60 years of statehood. In Hebrew the name of the bird is duchifat. In Arabic it is hud hud. And in English hoopoe is a word that sounds, as Emily Dickinson noted about all feathered creatures, strangely like hope.
The news was announced at the official residence of the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, who in the late 1940s changed his name from Persky to Peres because he saw a giant lammergeier, or bearded vulture (in Hebrew, a “peres”), circling overhead. Legend has it that the lammergeier, which no longer breeds in Israel, killed the Greek tragedian Aeschylus by dropping a tortoise on his head. Birds can be dangerous, which is precisely why the United States chose the bald eagle, though Benjamin Franklin complained, in a letter to his daughter, that the eagle was a cowardly bully while the turkey was nobler and feistier and therefore a more apt symbol for America.
In Franklin’s time, a young democracy wanted a warrior bird; in the 21st century other considerations carry the day. The cross-section of Israelis who did the voting to choose a national bird — including schoolchildren, soldiers, academics and Knesset members — rejected the possibility of a raptor (specifically, the much-loved, and endangered, griffon vulture) as sending the wrong signal for the country. They also rejected the night owl, which Arabs believe to be an evil omen.
I first saw a hoopoe in 2000, the year the Oslo Accords officially fell apart. I had known about the bird since childhood, when I learned that King Solomon — who, with his storied ability to understand the speech of animals is the Dr. Doolittle of Judaism — had sought out the hoopoe in order to build the Temple. It had not occurred to me, until I began bird-watching, that the bird was real.
But there I was, in a small bird observatory in Jerusalem, with a soldier whose job it was to net migrating birds, weigh them and then toss them back into the air. “Filthy birds,” he said, pointing out one that was heading for a hole in a wall and then adding that they reeked of excrement. So much for the bird who helped the king build a house for God. It was, however, a lesson worthy of Solomon, seeing this lofty bird that smells of mortality. It is the nature of birds to embody multiple elements, shuttling as they do between earth and sky, between ancient and modern, between wild and tame. They are emblems of our heavenly aspirations and yet they are the closest living relatives to the dinosaurs.
The search for a national bird was organized by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and led by an Israeli ornithologist, Yossi Leshem. Dr. Leshem has created the International Center for Bird Migration in Latrun, the site of some very bloody battles in Israel’s War of Independence and home to a vast war memorial. The center’s hopeful slogan, printed in Hebrew, Arabic and English, is “Migrating birds know no boundaries,” in contrast to the people on the ground, for whom boundaries are everything. This gives birdlife an added poignancy in Israel.
Israel is a surprisingly good place for bird-watching (half a billion birds fly through the country during migration, converging from Africa, Asia and Europe). Jeremiah noted that “the stork in the heaven knoweth her appointed times” and she still does — every year, 85 percent of the world’s white stork population migrates over Israel, despite the general upheaval of the world below.
A hoopoe is the hero of the Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar’s “Conference of the Birds,” a medieval allegory in which a group of birds sets out to find the king of the birds. The hoopoe is their leader, artfully persuading all the reluctant birds to come on the quest. In the end, they manage to find the king of the birds, who turns out to be God. The birds that have made it into the bird king’s presence are filled with radiant insight but they are consumed — they discover they are part of God and they are obliterated in the divine effulgence. This is a happy ending if you are a mystic but it is chilling if you are not.
Attar, a Sufi, believed that all religions are a path to God. It is part of the endless irony of history that the place where Attar once lived (and that in fact expelled him for heresy) today threatens with obliteration those nations, most especially the Jewish state, that it deems an abomination. Whether even the wisdom of King Solomon, and his magical avian emissary, can devise an answer to this threat is one of the great challenges of the coming days.