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Flight of Fancy


One man was unwilling to let the country go on without the requisite mascot. Yossi Leshem, a wild-haired ornithologist from Israel’s International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, orchestrated the national campaign with his colleague Dan Alon. “You always need crazy ones to get anything done,” he says, offering an explanation for why it took so long for Israel to pick a bird. In this case, crazy is code for supremely dedicated, and Leshem, behind his kind eyes and rumpled t-shirts, has a Protean energy and organizational flare that has been serving Israel’s birdlife since the moment he banded his first nest of buzzards, an experience he claims that “choked my soul.”

Israel is heaven for people who love birds. The twice-annual migration attracts 500 million specimens from 540 species. If not for its troubled history, Israel would be another Costa Rica, with British twitchers looking up in the trees rather than Southern Baptists looking down at the old stones. Consider the kingfisher species alone: There’s the Asiatic Smyrna kingfisher, the pied kingfisher from Africa, and the European common kingfisher, all in the same place. Leshem knows how good he has it: “We are at the junction of three continents,” he says. “From a political point of view, this is disastrous, but for birds it is magnificent.”

The biodiversity only added to the difficulty of choosing a single bird to represent the whole country. The concept of a bird representing a country--any country--is inherently ridiculous. Birds mock borders. They are the epitome of statelessness. Which means that Israel has had to pick a representative stateless animal for a state created by one stateless people and that rendered another people stateless. The decision-making process has been typically Israeli, democratic but fragmented and confusing. A panel of Israeli ornithologists whittled the list down to 10 species, the only requirement being that the birds nest in Israel. One quarter of the vote came from schoolchildren at various schools throughout the country, one quarter from the army, one quarter from a panel of public figures, and one quarter from general voting on the website of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

No doves made the list and no hawks either, though several birds of prey were possibilities. In interviews before the vote, Ehud Barak stumped for the lesser kestrel, but it’s not surprising that he would be prejudiced in favor of a pint-sized deadly striker who drops out of nowhere on its prey. The other predators were serious long shots. The white owl is an ancient icon of wisdom but does little more than kill and mate. The griffon vulture feeds on the dead. Through no fault of its own, a local sunbird with a gorgeous blue sheen--just Israel’s color--bears the official name of Palestine sunbird. So that was out. Other birds were problematic because of their behavior. The yellow-vented bulbul is a lovely passerine, but it makes its nest by stealing from other birds’ homes. Also, its name is used by both Palestinian and Israeli children to refer to the penis--potty mouth knows no borders. Many of the other potential candidates, while less controversial, also seem far less powerful. Are the European goldfinch, the spur-winged lapwing, or the white-breasted kingfisher really Israeli? Israel, land of the white-breasted kingfisher?

In the later stages of the contest, the likeliest candidate seemed to be the graceful prinia, a species of warbler commonly found in Israeli gardens. At Blich High School in Ramat Gan, whose mock elections have been remarkably successful predictors of Israeli political contests in the past, the graceful prinia won easily, with a full 25 percent of the vote. Yossi Leshem describes the bird as “a very, very small bird that is very, very loud and noisy.” Which makes it sound like a natural choice for Israel’s national bird. 

But the winner, declared on May 29, was the hoopoe, a bird with almost too much symbolic meaning, even for Israel. In Greek mythology the tyrant Tereus, after cutting out his mistress's tongue and unwittingly banqueting on the corpse of his son, was changed by the gods into the hoopoe. In Midrashic tradition, the hoopoe solves Solomon’s tricky problem of how to cut the stones of the temple without using iron by presenting him with magical worms called the shamir. (The hoopoe isn’t, however, part of a traditional Jewish diet: It’s on the list of “abhorrent” birds in Leviticus 11.) It’s a good choice, all in all, a gorgeous bird with a crown-like crest. Any country would be proud to have it on its telephone cards. And in its rich depth of traditions, in the ambiguities within those traditions, there is something at least approaching a reflection of Israel’s culture and history.

Even at the announcement for the bird, however, the debate wasn’t over. President Shimon Peres regretted that the dove hadn’t been a candidate: “The dove is equipped with a homing system, which can lead it home from anywhere it may be--and despite limitations and long distances it is a true Zionist,” he said at the bird’s inauguration. 

He more than anyone should know the power of avian symbolism, and the labyrinthine ironies bird symbols generate in Israel. In 1945, when he was still Shimon Persky, while mapping a portion of the Negev desert with David Ben-Gurion, he stumbled on the nest of a bearded vulture, or “Peres” as the bird is known in Hebrew. He liked the sound of “Peres”--and it was Hebrew, not Yiddish. And so Shimon Persky became Shimon Peres.

Unfortunately, the bearded vulture could never have been a candidate for national bird. It’s gone extinct in Israel.

Stephen Marche is the author, most recently, of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea, a literary anthology of an invented country.

Correction: The original version of this article erroneously stated that Tereus, the tyrant from Greek mythology, cut out his wife's tongue. In fact, he cut out the tongue of his wife's sister, with whom he had been having an affair, in order to prevent her from informing his wife.

By Stephen Marche