Published: July 2013
Last Song for Migrating Birds
From glue-covered sticks in Egypt hang two lives, and a question: How can we stop the slaughter of songbirds migrating across the Mediterranean?
By Jonathan Franzen

In a bird market in the Mediterranean tourist town of Marsa Matruh, Egypt, I was inspecting cages crowded with wild turtledoves and quail when one of the birdsellers saw the disapproval in my face and called out sarcastically, in Arabic: “You Americans feel bad about the birds, but you don’t feel bad about dropping bombs on someone’s homeland.”

I could have answered that it’s possible to feel bad about both birds and bombs, that two wrongs don’t make a right. But it seemed to me that the birdseller was saying something true about the problem of nature conservation in a world of human conflict, something not so easily refuted. He kissed his fingers to suggest how good the birds tasted, and I kept frowning at the cages.

To a visitor from North America, where bird hunting is well regulated and only naughty farm boys shoot songbirds, the situation in the Mediterranean is appalling: Every year, from one end of it to the other, hundreds of millions of songbirds and larger migrants are killed for food, profit, sport, and general amusement. The killing is substantially indiscriminate, with heavy impact on species already battered by destruction or fragmentation of their breeding habitat. Mediterraneans shoot cranes, storks, and large raptors for which governments to the north have multimillion-euro conservation projects. All across Europe bird populations are in steep decline, and the slaughter in the Mediterranean is one of the causes.

Italian hunters and poachers are the most notorious; for much of the year, the woods and wetlands of rural Italy crackle with gunfire and songbird traps. The food-loving French continue to eat ortolan buntings illegally, and France’s singularly long list of huntable birds includes many struggling species of shorebirds. Songbird trapping is still widespread in parts of Spain; Maltese hunters, frustrated by a lack of native quarry, blast migrating raptors out of the sky; Cypriots harvest warblers on an industrial scale and consume them by the plateful, in defiance of the law.

In the European Union, however, there are at least theoretical constraints on the killing of migratory birds. Public opinion in the EU tends to favor conservation, and a variety of nature-protection groups are helping governments enforce the law. (In Sicily, formerly a hot spot for raptor killing, poaching has been all but eliminated, and some of the former poachers have even become bird-watchers.) Where the situation for migrants is not improving is in the non-EU Mediterranean. In fact, when I visited Albania and Egypt last year, I found that it’s becoming dramatically worse.

February 2012 brought eastern Europe its coldest weather in 50 years. Geese that normally winter in the Danube Valley flew south to escape it, and some 50,000 of them descended on the plains of Albania, starving and exhausted. Every one of them was exterminated. Men using shotguns and old Russian Kalashnikovs mowed them down, while women and children carried the carcasses into towns for sale to restaurants. Many of the geese had been banded by researchers to the north; one hunter told me he’d seen a band from Greenland. Although nobody in Albania is going hungry, the country has one of the lowest per capita incomes in Europe. The unusual influx of saleable geese was literally a windfall for local farmers and villagers.

The easternmost of Europe’s migratory flyways passes through the Balkans, and in Albania the Adriatic coastline, which is otherwise forbiddingly mountainous, opens into an extraordinarily rich system of wetlands, lakes, and coastal plains. For millennia birds making the northward journey from Africa were able to rest and refuel here before struggling on over the Dinaric Alps to their breeding grounds, and to stop here again in the fall before recrossing the Mediterranean.

Under the 40-year Marxist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, totalitarianism destroyed the fabric of Albanian society and tradition, and yet this was not a bad time for birds. Hoxha reserved the privileges of hunting and private gun ownership for himself and a few trusted cronies. (To this day the national Museum of Natural History displays bird trophies of Hoxha and other members of the politburo.) But a handful of hunters had minimal impact on the millions of migrants passing through, and the country’s command-economy backwardness, along with its repellence to foreign beach tourists, ensured that its wealth of coastal habitat remained intact.

Following Hoxha’s death, in 1985, the country underwent an uneasy transition to a market economy, including a period of near anarchy in which the country’s armories were broken open and the military’s guns were seized by ordinary citizens. Even after the rule of law was restored, Albanians kept their guns, and the country remained understandably averse to regulation of all kinds. The economy began to grow, and one of the ways in which a generation of younger men in Tirana expressed their new freedom and prosperity was to buy expensive shotguns, by the thousands, and use them to do what formerly only the elite could do: kill birds.

In Tirana, a few weeks after the big February freeze, I met a young woman who was very unhappy with her husband’s new hunting hobby. She told me they’d had a fight about his gun, which he’d had to borrow money to pay for. He kept the gun in their 1986 Mercedes, and she described how she’d once watched him pull over to the side of a road, jump out of the car, and start shooting at little birds on a power line.

“I’d like to understand this,” I said.

“You won’t!” she said. “We’ve talked about it, and I don’t understand it.” But she called her husband on her cell phone and asked him to join us.

“It’s become fashionable, and my friends talked me into it,” the hunter explained to me, somewhat sheepishly. “I’m not a real hunter—you can’t become a hunter at 40. But being a new one, and feeling good about owning a licensed weapon, a very good powerful gun, and never having killed any birds before, it was fun at first. It was like when summer comes and you feel like jumping in the ocean. I would go out on my own and drive up into the hills for an hour. We don’t have well-identified protected areas, and I’d shoot whatever I could. It was spontaneous. But it gets less joyful when you think about the animals you’re killing.”

“Yes, what about that?” I said.

The hunter frowned. “I feel very uncomfortable with the situation. My friends are saying it now too: ‘There are no birds; we walk for hours without seeing any.’ It’s really scary. At this point I’d be happy if the government put a stop to all hunting for two years—no, five years—to let the birds recover.”

There would be precedent for a fiat like this: Seven years ago, when coastal drug and human smuggling became a problem, the government simply banned most private boats and yachts. But electoral power in Albania is narrowly balanced between two major political parties, each of which is loath to impose potentially unpopular regulation on an issue of minor concern to most voters.

There is, indeed, only one serious bird advocate in Albania, Taulant Bino, who is also the country’s only real bird-watcher. Bino is the deputy minister of the environment, and one morning he took me out to Divjaka-Karavasta National Park, the crown jewel of Albanian coastal preserves, a vast area of outstanding beach and wetland habitat. It was mid-March, a time when hunting is banned throughout the country, and the park (where hunting is prohibited year-round) ought to have been full of wintering and migrating waterfowl and waders. Except for one pond defended by fishermen, however, the park was strikingly devoid of birdlife; there weren’t even any mallards.

Driving along the beach, we soon saw one reason why: A group of hunters had put out decoys and were shooting cormorants and godwits. The park’s manager, who was escorting us, angrily told the hunters to leave, at which point one of them took out a phone and tried to call a friend in the government. “Are you crazy?” the park manager shouted at him. “Do you realize that I’m here with the deputy minister of the environment?”

Bino’s ministry has safeguarded, at least on paper, sufficient habitat to sustain healthy populations of migratory and breeding birds. “When conservationists saw that the economic development might hamper the biodiversity,” Bino told me, “they thought they’d better expand the network of protected areas before they were threatened with development. But it’s difficult to control people who are armed—you also need the police. We closed one area here in 2007, and 400 hunters showed up, shooting everything. The police came in and confiscated some weapons, but after two days they said to us, ‘This is your problem, not ours.’ ”

Unfortunately, the old communist joke still applies to forestry officials responsible for the protected areas: The government pretends to pay them, and they pretend to work. As a result, the laws are not enforced—a fact that Italian hunters, limited by EU regulations at home, were quick to recognize and exploit after Hoxha’s death. During my week in Albania I didn’t visit a protected area in which there were not Italian hunters, even though the hunting season had ended, even in unprotected areas. In every case the Italians were using illegal high-quality bird-sound playback equipment and shooting as much as they wanted of whatever they wanted.

On a second visit to Karavasta, without Bino, I saw two men in camouflage getting into a boat with guns, obviously hurrying to push off before I could speak to them. An Albanian helper of theirs, standing on the beach, told me that they were Albanians, but when I called out to them, they shouted back in Italian.

“OK, they’re Italians,” the helper admitted as they motored away from us. “Cardiologists from Bari, very well equipped. They were out here from dawn to midnight yesterday.”

“Do they know the hunting season is over?” I asked.

“They’re smart men.”

“How did they get into the national park?”

“It’s an open gate.”

“And who gets paid off? The guards?”

“Not the guards. It’s higher up.”

“The park manager?”

The helper shrugged.

Albania was once ruled by Italy, and many Albanians still view Italians as models of sophistication and modernity. Beyond the very considerable immediate damage that Italian tourist hunters do in Albania, they’ve introduced both an ethic of indiscriminate slaughter and new methods of accomplishing it—in particular the use of playback, which is catastrophically effective in attracting birds. Even in provincial villages, Albanian hunters now have MP3s of duck calls on their cell phones and iPods. Their new sophistication, coupled with an estimated 100,000 shotguns (in a country of three million) and a glut of other weapons that can be used opportunistically, has turned Albania into a giant sinkhole for eastern European migratory biomass: Millions of birds fly in and very few get out alive.

The smart or lucky ones avoid the country. On a beach in Velipoja I watched large flocks of garganeys fly back and forth in distress, far offshore, further exhausting themselves after crossing the Adriatic, because local hunters in well-spaced beach blinds prevented them from reaching the wetlands where they could feed. Martin Schneider-Jacoby, who was a bird specialist for the German organization EuroNatur until his death last summer, described to me how flocks of cranes, approaching Albania from the sea, divide in two by age group. The adult birds continue flying at high altitude, while inexperienced first-year birds, seeing attractive habitat below, descend until shots ring out—there’s always somebody ready to take potshots—and then rise again and follow the adults. “They’re coming from the Sahara,” Schneider-Jacoby said, “and they have 2,000-meter mountains they have to cross. They need the rest. They might still have the energy to get over the mountains, but maybe not then for successful breeding.”

Across the Albanian border, in Montenegro, Schneider-Jacoby showed me the extensive salt pans at the town of Ulcinj. Until recently, Montenegrin hunters kept the pans as empty of birds as Albania’s “protected” areas, just a few miles away, but a nonprofit, the Center for Protection and Research of Birds of Montenegro, has provided for a single ranger to report poachers to the police, and the results have been dramatic: birds as far as the eye can see, thousands of waders, thousands of ducks, all busily feeding. Spring migration, always awe-inspiring, had never seemed to me more so.

“Eurasia cannot afford a sinkhole like Albania,” Schneider-Jacoby said. “We’re too good at killing these animals, and we still haven’t learned in Europe how to have a system that will allow birds to survive. Hunting bans are the only thing that seems to work right now. If they stop the hunting here, they’ll have the best habitat in Europe. People will come to Karavasta to see the resting cranes.”

The situation in Albania isn’t hopeless. Many new hunters seem aware that something has to change; better environmental education and the coming growth of foreign tourism may increase demand for unspoiled natural areas; and bird populations will rebound quickly if the government enforces the law in protected areas. When I took the hobbyist hunter and his wife to Karavasta and showed them the ducks and waders at the one defended pond, the wife cried out with pride and happiness: “We didn’t know we had birds like this here!” (Shortly after my visit, her husband sold his gun.)

Farther south, hope is harder to come by. As in Albania, history and politics in Egypt militate against conservation. The country is nominally a signatory to several international conventions regulating bird hunting, but long-standing resentment of European colonialism, compounded by the conflict between traditional Muslim culture and the destabilizing freedoms of the West, disincline the Egyptian government to abide by them. What’s more, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was specifically a repudiation of Egypt’s police. The new president, Mohamed Morsi, could ill afford to enforce regulations overzealously; he had a lot more urgent worries than wildlife.

In northeastern Africa, unlike in the Balkans, there is also an ancient, rich, and continuous tradition of harvesting migratory birds of all sizes. (The miraculous provision of meat accompanying the manna from heaven that saved the Israelites in the Sinai is thought to have been migrating quail.) As long as the practice was pursued by traditional methods (handmade nets and lime sticks, small traps made of reeds, camels for transportation), the impact on Eurasian breeding bird populations was perhaps sustainable. The problem now is that new technology has vastly increased the harvest, while the tradition remains in place.

The most hope-confounding cultural disjunction, however, may be this: Egyptian bird hunters make no distinction between catching a fish and catching a bird (indeed, in the Nile Delta, they use the same nets for both), whereas, for many Westerners, birds have a charisma, and thus an emotional and even ethical status, that fish do not. In the desert west of Cairo, while sitting in a tent with six young Bedouin bird hunters, I saw a yellow wagtail hopping in the sand outside. My reaction was emotional: Here was a tiny, confiding, warm-blooded, beautifully plumaged animal that had just flown several hundred miles across the desert. The reaction of the hunter next to me was to grab an air rifle and take a shot. For him, when the wagtail fluttered off unharmed, it was as if a fish had got away. For me it was a rare moment of relief.

The six Bedouin, barely out of their teens, were camped in a sparse grove of acacias, surrounded in all directions by sand roasting in September sun. They patrolled the grove with a shotgun and air rifles, stopping to flush birds from the acacias by clapping their hands and kicking sand. The grove was a magnet for southbound migrants, and every bird that flew in, regardless of its size or species or conservation status, was killed and eaten. For the young men, songbird hunting was a relief from boredom, an excuse to hang out as a group and do guy things. They also had a generator, a computer loaded with B movies, an SLR camera, night-vision goggles, and a Kalashnikov to fire for fun—they were all from well-to-do families.

Their morning’s catch, strung on a wire like a large bunch of fish, included turtledoves, golden orioles, and tiny warblers. There’s not much meat on a warbler, or even on an oriole, but to prepare for their long autumnal journey the migrants build up stores of fat, which could be seen in yellow lobes on their bellies when the hunters plucked them. Served with spiced rice, they made a rich lunch. Although orioles are reputed in the Middle East to be good for male potency (they’re “natural Viagra,” I was told), I had no use for Viagra and helped myself only to a turtledove.

After lunch a hunter came into the tent with the yellow wagtail that I’d seen hopping on the sand. It looked even smaller dead than it had alive. “Poor thing,” another hunter said, to general laughter. He was joking for a Westerner.

Because Egyptian desert travel is now by truck, rather than camel, practically every decent-size tree or bush, no matter how isolated, can be visited by hunters during the peak fall season. In some areas golden orioles are a cash crop, sold to middlemen for freezing and resale in the Persian Gulf states. The Bedouin, however, mostly eat what they catch or give it away to friends and neighbors. At prime sites, such as the Al Maghrah oasis, where hunters congregate by the dozens, a single hunter can kill more than 50 orioles in one day.

I visited Al Maghrah late in the season, but the oriole decoys (consisting typically of a dead male on a stick) were still attracting good numbers, and the hunters rarely missed with their shotguns. Given how many hunters there were, it seemed quite possible that 5,000 orioles were being taken annually at this one location. And given that there are scores of other desert hunting sites, and that the bird is a prized quarry along the Egyptian coast as well, the losses in Egypt represent a significant fraction of the species’ European population of two or three million breeding pairs. Enjoyment of a colorful species with a vast summer and winter range is thus being monopolized, every September, by a relatively tiny number of well-fed leisure hunters seeking natural Viagra. And while some of them may be using unlicensed weapons to kill orioles, the rest are breaking no Egyptian laws at all thereby.

At the oasis I also met a shepherd too poor to own a shotgun. He and his ten-year-old son instead relied on four nets, hung over trees, and they were mostly catching smaller birds like flycatchers, shrikes, and warblers. The son was therefore excited when he managed to corner a male oriole, splendidly gold and black, in a net. He came running back to his father with it—“An oriole!” he shouted proudly—and cut its throat with a knife. Moments later a female oriole flashed close to us, and I wondered if it might be the dead male’s distraught mate. The shepherd boy chased it toward a netted palm tree, but the bird avoided the tree at the last second and headed into the open desert, flying southward.

Most of the Bedouin I spoke to told me that they won’t kill resident species, such as hoopoes and laughing doves. Like other Mediterranean hunters, however, they consider all migratory species fair game; as the Albanians like to say, “They’re not our birds.” While every Egyptian hunter I met admitted that the number of migrants has been declining in recent years, only a few allowed that overharvesting might be a factor. Some hunters blame climate change; an especially popular theory is that the increasing number of electric lights at the coast is frightening the birds away. (In fact, lights are more likely to attract them.)

Environmental advocacy and education in Egypt are mostly confined to a few small nongovernmental organizations, such as Nature Conservation Egypt (which provided assistance with this story). European bird-advocacy groups expend significant money and manpower on Malta and in other European hot spots for migratory bird killing, but the problem in Egypt, which is more severe than anywhere in Europe, is largely overlooked. This represents, perhaps, the inverse of They’re not our birds: They’re not our hunters. But the political and cultural divide between the West and the Middle East is also daunting. The basic message of environmental “education” is, unavoidably, that Egyptians should stop doing what they’ve always done; and the concerns of a bird-smitten nation like England, whose colonization of Egypt is in any case still resented, seem as absurd and meddling as a Royal Society for the Protection of Catfish would seem to rural Mississippians.

Most Egyptian coastal towns have bird markets where a quail can be bought for two dollars, a turtledove for five, an oriole for three, and small birds for pennies. Outside one of these towns, El Daba, I toured the farm of a white-bearded man with a bird-trapping operation so large that, even after the families of his six sons had eaten their fill, he had a surplus to bring to market. Enormous nets were draped over eight tall tamarisk trees and many smaller bushes, encircling a grove of figs and olives; the nets were an inexpensive modern product, available in El Daba for only the past seven years. The sun was very hot, and migrant songbirds were arriving from the nearby coastline, seeking shelter. Repelled by the net on one tree, they simply flew to the next tree, until they found themselves caught. The farmer’s grandsons ran inside the nets and grabbed them, and one of his sons tore off their flight feathers and dropped them in a plastic grain sack. In 20 minutes I saw a red-backed shrike, a collared flycatcher, a spotted flycatcher, a male golden oriole, a chiffchaff, a blackcap, two wood warblers, two cisticolas, and many unidentified birds disappear into the sack. By the time we paused in the shade, amid the discarded heads and feathers of cuckoos and hoopoes and a sparrow hawk, the sack was bulging, the oriole crying out inside it.

Based on the farmer’s estimates of his daily take, I calculated that every year between August 25 and September 25, his operation removes 600 orioles, 250 turtledoves, 200 hoopoes, and 4,500 smaller birds from the air. The supplemental income is surely welcome, but the farm would clearly have thrived without it; the furnishings in the family’s spacious guest parlor, where I was treated with great Bedouin hospitality, were brand-new and of high quality.

Everywhere I went along the coast, from Marsa Matruh to Ras el Barr, I saw nets like the farmer’s. Even more impressive were the mist nets used for catching quail: ultrafine nylon netting, all but invisible to birds, that is strung on poles and reaches from ground level to 11 or more feet off the ground. The mist nets, too, are a recent innovation, having been introduced in Sinai about 15 years ago and spread westward until they now cover the entire Egyptian Mediterranean coast. In north Sinai alone, mist nets stretch for 50 miles. Along the coastal highway west of Sinai, the nets run to the horizon and pass straight through tourist towns, in front of hotels and condominiums.

Much of Egypt’s coast is, on paper, protected. But the coastal preserves protect birds only to the extent of requiring permits to erect nets for catching them. These permits are cheap and freely granted; official restrictions on the height and spacing of the nets are honored in the breach. The owners of the nets go out before dawn and wait for quail, arriving from across the sea, to come zinging over the beach and enmesh themselves. On a good day, a third of a mile of nets can yield 50 quail or more. My very low-end estimate, based on figures from a bad year, is that 100,000 quail are taken annually in Egypt’s coastal mist nets alone.

Even as quail are becoming very difficult to find in much of Europe, the take in Egypt is increasing, due to the burgeoning use of playback technology. The best system, Bird Sound, whose digital chip holds high-quality recordings of a hundred different bird sounds, is illegal to use for hunting purposes in the EU but is nevertheless sold in stores with no questions asked. In Alexandria, I spoke with a sport hunter, Wael Karawia, who claimed to have introduced Bird Sound to Egypt in 2009. Karawia said he now feels “very bad, very regretful” about it. Normally, perhaps three-quarters of incoming quail fly over the mist nets, but hunters using Bird Sound can attract the higher flying ones as well; already all the mist netters in north Sinai are doing it, some of them in spring as well as fall. Hunters on Egypt’s large lakes have also begun to use Bird Sound to capture entire flocks of ducks at night.

“It will start to affect the birds, it has to,” Karawia told me. “The problem is the mentality—people want to fish anything and hunt anything, with no rules. We already had a lot of guns before the revolution, and since then there’s been a 40 percent increase. The people who don’t have money make their own guns, which is very dangerous—it could get them three years in jail—but they don’t care. Even the kids are doing it. School starts in September, but the kids don’t start until the hunting season ends.”

On the beach in the tourist town of Baltim, I had an encounter with some of these kids. Quail are the only permissible target of mist netters, but there is always a bycatch of small birds and even of the falcons that prey on them. At sundown in Baltim, walking with a guide from Nature Conservation Egypt and an official from the local protected area, I noticed a beautiful and tiny shorebird, a little ringed plover, caught in a net in the shadow of condominiums. My guide, Wael Shohdi, began to extricate it delicately but stopped when a young man came running up, carrying a mesh bag and trailed by two teenage friends. “Don’t touch the bird,” he shouted angrily. “Those are our nets!”

“It’s OK,” Shohdi assured him. “We handle birds all the time.”

A tussle ensued as the young hunter tried to show Shohdi how to yank the bird out without damaging the net. Shohdi, whose priority was the safety of the bird, somehow managed to free the plover in one piece. But the hunter then demanded that Shohdi hand it over.

The government official, Hani Mansour Bishara, pointed out that, along with two live quail, the hunter had a live songbird in his bag.

“No, that’s a quail,” the hunter said.

“No, it’s not.”

“OK, it’s a wheatear. But I’m 20 years old and we’re living from this net.”

Not being an Arab speaker, I learned only afterward what they were saying. What I could see in the moment was Shohdi continuing to hold the plover in his hand while the hunter reached for it angrily, trying to grab it away. We were in a country where millions of birds were being killed, but I couldn’t help worrying about this individual plover’s fate. I urged Shohdi to remind the hunter that it was illegal to keep anything but quail from the nets.

Shohdi did this, but the law was apparently not a good argument to use on angry 20-year-olds. Instead, with a view to changing hearts and minds, Shohdi and Bishara made the case that the little ringed plover is an important species, found only on mudflats, and that, moreover, it might be carrying a dangerous disease. (“We were lying a little bit,” Shohdi told me later.)

“So which is it?” the hunter demanded. “A diseased bird or an important species?”

“Both!” Shohdi and Bishara said.

“If it’s true about the disease,” one of the teenagers said, “we all would have been dead years ago. We eat everything from the nets. We never let anything go.”

“You can still get the disease from cooked birds,” Bishara improvised.

My concern about the plover deepened when Shohdi handed it over to the hunter, who (as I learned only subsequently) had sworn by Allah that he would release both it and the wheatear, just not while we were watching.

“But the National Geographic needs to see that they really are released,” Shohdi said.

Becoming even angrier, the hunter took out the wheatear and flung it in the air, and then did the same with the plover. Both flew straight to some of their fellows, farther down the beach, without looking back. “I only did it,” the hunter said defiantly, “because I’m a man of my word.” There wasn’t much more than one large bite of meat on the two birds put together, but I could see, in the hunter’s bitter expression, how much it cost him to let them go. He wanted to keep them even more than I wanted to see them freed.

Before leaving Egypt, I spent some days with Bedouin falcon trappers in the desert. Even by Bedouin standards, falcon trapping is a pursuit for men with a lot of time on their hands. Some have been doing it for 20 years without catching either of the two prized species, saker falcons and peregrine falcons, that are prized by middlemen catering to ultra-wealthy Arab falconers. The saker is so rare that not more than a dozen or two are captured in any given year, but the size of the jackpot (a good saker can fetch over $35,000, a peregrine over $15,000) entices hundreds of hunters into the desert for weeks at a time.

Falcon trapping requires the cruel use of many smaller birds. Pigeons are tied to stakes in the sand and left in the sun to attract raptors; doves and quail are outfitted with harnesses bristling with small nylon nooses in which sakers and peregrines can get their feet stuck; and smaller falcons, such as lanners or kestrels, have their eyelids sewn shut and a weighted, noose-laden decoy attached to one leg. Hunters drive around the desert in their Toyota pickups, visiting the staked pigeons and stopping to hurl the disabled kestrels into the air like footballs, in the hope of attracting a saker or a peregrine—a blinded, weighted kestrel can’t fly far. The hunters also often tether an unblinded falcon to the hood of their trucks and keep an eye on it while they speed through the sand. When the falcon looks up, it means that a larger raptor is overhead, and the hunters leap out to deploy their various decoys. The same routine is followed every afternoon, week after week.

One of the two most heartening things I witnessed in Egypt was the rapt attention that falcon hunters gave to my paperback field guide, Birds of Europe. They invariably clustered around it and turned its pages slowly, back to front, studying the illustrations of birds they’d seen and birds they hadn’t. One afternoon, while watching some of them do this, in a tent where I was offered strong tea and a very late lunch, I was stabbed with the crazy hope that the Bedouin were all, without yet realizing it, passionate bird-watchers.

Before we humans could be served lunch, one of the hunters tried to feed headless warblers to the blinded kestrel and the blinded sparrow hawk that were in the tent with us. The kestrel ate readily, but no amount of pushing the meat into the sparrow hawk’s face would induce it to eat. Instead, it busied itself with pecking at the twine that bound its leg—futilely, it seemed to me, at least until after lunch, when I was outside the tent and letting the hunters try out my binoculars. All of a sudden a shout went up. I turned and saw the sparrow hawk winging purposefully away from the tent and into the desert.

The hunters immediately gave chase in their trucks, in part because the bird was valuable to them but also in part—and this was the other heartening thing I witnessed—because a blinded bird couldn’t survive on its own, and they felt bad for it. (At the end of the falcon season, hunters unsuture the eyelids of their decoy falcons and release them, if only because it’s a bother to feed the birds year-round.) The hunters drove farther and farther into the desert, worrying about the sparrow hawk, hoping to spot it, but I personally had mixed feelings. I knew that if it got away, and if no other group of hunters happened upon it, it would soon be dead; but in its yearning to escape captivity, even blinded, even at the cost of certain death, it seemed to embody the essence of wild birds and why they matter. Twenty minutes later, when the last of the hunters returned to the tent empty-handed, my thought was: At least this bird had a chance to die free.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen’s latest book is Farther Away. This is AP staff photographer David Guttenfelder’s third story for the magazine.