Descriptions written by Richard Hoath

For a bustling city that more than 20 million people call home, Cairo hosts a surprising abundance of wildlife. At AUC, the University Garden boasts more than 60 acres of serene space, with trees that bear citrus, mangoes, olives, dates and fragrant flowers, making it a great place to spot some of Egypt’s resident and migratory birds.

We asked Richard Hoath, faculty member in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition and author of the Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt and The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East to help us identify a few of the most common winged beauties with whom we share our campus. 

Falco tinnunculus 

a kestrel perches on the window sill of a building at AUC New Cairo
Common Kestrel

This is a small falcon that breeds on campus. The male is smaller than the female, chestnut above, spotted with a black-tipped gray tail, gray head with a distinct moustachial stripe. The larger female is chestnut-brown-spotted and barred black throughout. Senior Thesis biology students have identified at least three nest sites on campus and have shown that they feed on birds, small reptiles and mammals, as well as large insects. Listen out for a penetrating kee kee kee, and watch for a raptor with a long straight tail and narrow pointed wings. The falcon was associated with the god Horus in ancient Egypt. 

Vanellus spinosus 

two birds standing next to each other
Spur-winged Lapwing

A striking wader. Both sexes are pale gray-brown above with a black breast and flanks. It has a black hood and throat and contrastingly white cheeks. The short, straight bill and long legs are black. Very black and white in flight. This species nests on the ground with four eggs in what is little more than a scrape. It can most often be seen in the desert scrub areas near the offices of AUC’s Center for Applied Research on the Environment and Sustainability (CARES). Listen out for a sharp pik pik pik. This is an alarm call that says you are too close to the nest. Leave quietly! 

A large Hawk moth at rest on old timber, it has a skull-like marking on its thorax and has the ability to squeak when alarmed
Death’s-head Hawkmoth

Acherontia atropos 

This spectacular insect is one of Egypt’s largest and most impressive moths, its wingspan exceeding the length of some of Egypt’s birds such as the Graceful Warbler mentioned below. The forewings are blue-gray complexly marbled with black and white and the hindwings yellow, banded black. It gets its name from the pale, skull-shaped marking on the thorax. Flies mainly at night and lies up by day in the gardens. Spectacular but completely harmless, its sinister reputation was reinforced by a starring role in the movie, The Silence of the Lambs as Hannibal Lecter’s sidekick. 

Pycnonotus barbatus 

bird perching in a tree
Common Bulbul

A small brown bird with a big song and character. Both sexes dull gray brown with a darker brown head and a suggestion of an angular crest. Underparts paler. Bill slender and dark, and with dark legs. 

This is one of the most common birds on campus. While it is rather dull in appearance, it makes up for this in voice. It chortles and warbles. Listen out for an agitated tchurr when alarmed. In Sinai, a very similar bird, the white-spectacled bulbul (P. xanthopygos) has a bright yellow bottom (vent).

Turdus merula

Blackbird (female)

Larger than the bulbul and a bird of the gardens. The male is jet black throughout with a bright yellow bill and eye-ring. The female is dark brown above and streaked brown below. The blackbird used to be a winter visitor to Egypt but in recent decades has dramatically increased its range as a breeding species and breeds on campus. Listen out for the wonderfully mellifluous song sometimes given by the male from the top of the library.

Lanius excubitor

bird stands on the top of an upright branch
Great Grey Shrike

Distinctive gray, black and white bird. Both sexes with pale gray upperparts and black wings and tail with white on wings in flight. Look out for a bold black ‘bandit’ mask through the eyes. This shrike nests on campus in the gardens and defends its nest. Duck! In the States, it is also called the Butcher Bird as it stores its prey, such as beetles, grasshoppers and the like on tree thorns for future use. Elsewhere, it uses barbed wire as an alternative. Clever.

Upupa epops 

a large bird with black and white wings and an orange mohawk stands in a field of grass

What a striking bird! The eponymous hudhud. Both sexes are cinnamon pink throughout with bold black and white wings and a long, slender downcurved bill. When alert or landing from flight, an elaborate crest is raised similarly tipped in black and white. 

Taxonomists don’t know what to do with the hoopoe; sometimes it is lumped in with the African woodhoopoes and sometimes put in its own family. An enigma — and believed to have delivered wisdom to Solomon.

Prinia gracilis 

bird perches on a stick
Graceful Prinia

A tiny, mouse-like bird. Dull brown and streaked above and uniformly pale below with a slender bill and a long, slender and skinny tail. Difficult to see but can be heard throughout the gardens with a loud prrlip prrlip prrlip and a tsit. For those in central Cairo, and not afraid of devaluation, the terrace of the Zamalek Marriott is a cert. I prefer our gardens.

Want to learn more? Pick up a copy of Hoath’s latest book, The Birds of Egypt and the Middle East, and his Field Guide to the Mammals of Egypt at the AUC Bookstore or buy them online.

All photos excluding shrike and hawkmoth by Ahmad El-Nemr

Leave a Reply

Read more

%d bloggers like this: