Saudi Arabia: Abysinnian Roller and Arabian Wildlife


Yasmin is a long time resident of Jeddah and through her I have learned much of Jeddah’s treasures and history.  She is sharing with American Bedu readers her recent experience and observations of attending a recent meeting of the Natural History Society, Jeddah.

I’m a board member of the Natural History Society and even though we are expected to attend every meeting and look forward to them, some times it just seems to take too much effort to take on the traffic. For this particular meeting I was asked to bring a laptop as it was discovered the members who usually provide it had inadvertently left theirs back in the UK when visiting. I was just coming off a flu and had already had an exhausting day but didn’t want to disappoint the members. The normally half hour trip stretched into 50 minutes as the road construction made all traffic crawl on an already busy road. It was dark by time I made the venue, I hefted in the laptop only to discover another one had been arranged. Well I was there, I decided I may as well enjoy the presentation.

Hagen Schmid was our lecturer, his presentations are always interesting and I have to tell you this was no exception. He showed a film enigmatically titled “Arabia, Sand, Sea and Sky”, made back in 1990 that was actually on the wildlife of southern Arabia. It had taken three years to capture all the footage and the richness of the film was so surprising you couldn’t hear a peep from the audience during the whole 55 minute film. They had a variety of birds like the Abyssinian Roller (I think they are also called Bee-eaters), the hornbill, larks, weaver birds and corsairs. Pictures of birds are great but to see them in motion was a completely different experience. The roller males make loops in the sky one after the other to show off for mates. The ellipses look like a bird is making giant stitches in the air. They soar up, fold in their wings, freeze for a moment and then pitch down in a free fall and open their wings towards the bottom of the loop and soar back up again.

The weaver birds use grass and cob webs to make upside down nests to attract females. Immature weaver birds also try to build nests but no female will mate with them so the more aggressive mature males steal their materials so thoughtfully provided and make three or four nests all grouped close to each other and then they fill them with mates and babies. I’ve seen the weaver bird on my window still staring at the green glass. Sometimes he will rap on the window perhaps thinking he is fending off a competitor when he looks at his own reflection.

The film mentions that when the Arabian peninsula was separated from the African continent, many of the birds and wild like were trapped over on the Arabian side. Also the trees in the Sarawat mountains and the local climate which is rainy even in summer, are the last vestiges of what used to be a lush tropical land 10,000 years ago. On one comment they were saying that the Hamadryus baboons in Arabia number 350,000 compared to them nearly being extinct in Africa which is odd as you would expect Africa is teeming with wildlife compared to here. The endearing thing about the baboons is how social they are. Young baboons spend a large part of their day playing and other parts of their day grooming each other and their elders. Although they have elongated ‘snouts’ to see a mother baboon hold a baby in her lap is not very different from seeing a human mother and child.

The guinea fowl that are left in Arabia are very few and are protected by the Governor and the people who live in the southern region. I think it was a shocking number something like only 300 left. (Please note that the guinea fowl in southern Arabia have less spots and don’t have growths on the top of their heads as in this African picture.) When I tried to look them up I found as many pictures of cooked Guinea fowl as live, this might be part of the problem. They seem to be related to the vulture family with their bald heads, wouldn’t this put off some would be bird eaters?

The film also had footage of the Ibex and their lives up in the rocky crags of the mountains. Ibex have a variation on their hooves which make them more flexible than regular goats and cause a type of suction. You would think they need that in order to stay put on the rocks. The mothers would wander off to have their babies in hollows between boulders and their first wobbly steps would be on the rocky face of a mountain.  It’s so hard to find those pictures even to look for the Ibex there were only pictures of the Nubian (African) ones, the ones up in Palestine and some extinct Spanish ones. True pictures of Arabian wildlife are hard to come by. I wish I had more pictures to share with you.

I wanted to mention that native to the region is a version of camel called ‘Jabaly’ meaning mountain-type. They are much smaller, less shaggy and more delicately built. Their hooves are narrower in order to navigate on harder ground, unlike the dessert dwelling camels with the splayed feet who need them soft to gain traction on the shifting sands. To see a group of them all rolling in a sand pit to rid themselves of pests looks like a bunch of teenagers playing Twister. They remind you more of a llama-like version of camel and I think they might very well be the fore-runners in any camel beauty pagent.  I didn’t catch all the credits for the film but the director was Michael Mc Kinnon and I believe it had the support of HRH Prince Saud Al-Faisal, HRH Prince Khalid Al-Faisal, Tarik Alireza and other members of his family. It’s one of three films and there are also books associated with the project. The film was made 20 years ago, I hope that the wildlife numbers have increased in this interim. It would be really great if this film could be made more readily available and shown to students and the people of Saudi Arabia for their enrichment.

So I was happy I was there to see this film despite the trip.

Jasmin Keaton


6 Responses

  1. Are the Lhada monkeys still in good health?

  2. I don’t know for sure, Ali. I’ll see if I can find out.

  3. I will go and look for the film 🙂 sounds very interesting.

  4. When I was 14 my mother and I went for a quick visit to my grandparents in OK. When there we visited a farm that had some of those guinea fowl shown in that picture…those gray bodied birds with white spots. Anyhow, for some reason we decided t o buy some eggs and incubate them (cant even remember why we wanted to do that) and so came home with about 8 or 9 eggs and a styrofoam incubator.

    Long story short…a few weeks later only one of the eggs ended up hatching…we named him Guinny and he was like a pet dog or something for us. He followed us around everywhere…I mean right on our heels. Came inside the house, stole our food from our plates (not when dad was around for sure) and stood on top of the highest point he could find and did his amazingly loud chirrup sound.

    Its well known that these birds are better security alarms then dogs etc because they are very vigilant and will sound out for any disturbance and they are very loud so easy enough to hear.

    The next summer we got more eggs and this time had a little flock of guineas (they all hatched) and watched sadly as our Guinny made new friends and hung out with a new crowd…with occassional visits and food snatchings.

    Lovely birds to own.

  5. @ coolred> wow, nice to hear that. now i want one for my kids…but only one to experience that same loyalty of this kind of bird.

    i never see hummingbirds in jed…anyone know why? gia in jed

  6. That is so cool, Coolred! My mom used to talk about the “pet goose” her family had when she was growing up. She said it was better than a watch dog but also very mean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: