Hebrew Hear-Say: Israeli chicks

Birds of a feather flock together, they say, but at least one group is intent on establishing a pecking order. Ahead of Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees, and in honor of the country's 60th anniversary, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel is holding a Internet vote to choose our very own national bird. Some of the country's top ornithologists (tzapparim) drew up a long list of feathered friends from which they plucked the top 10 finalists. The early bird might catch the worm, but late birds can still get caught in the Web: Votes can be placed at: www.teva.org.il (in Hebrew). There's no cash prize to feather your nest, but you will have the satisfaction of knowing you had a part in the choice and feel as proud as a peacock (tavas) if your favorite wins, thus virtually killing two birds with one stone. Of course, there are always some wagtails - sorry, make that wags - who put in colorful suggestions. More than one person has suggested that given the current political and regional situation we crown the ostrich (ya'en/bat ya'ana) as Israel's national bird, if we can find its head buried in the sand. Well-respected ornithologist Amir Balaban, of the SPNI's Jerusalem Birdwatching Center, put forward his choice on Walla.co.il: He favors the bulbul (common bulbul, in English) for, among other things, being noisy, a bit of a show-off, sticking together, often creating a balagan but always being in good spirits. However, a major drawback of this bird is its name. If you don't know its slang meaning, say it next to a young child and watch the reaction. English has its dickie birds and "dicks," and Israel has its bulbuls. Among my family's favorites are both the bulbul and the Palestine sunbird (tzufit boheket). A little bird told me, or as they say around here, tzipor katana lahasha li, that it doesn't stand a chance. It might ruffle some feathers to have Israel's national bird something with the word Palestine in its English title. I guess we'll have to go cold turkey. (Turkeys, confusingly enough, in Hebrew are known as tarnegolei hodu, or "Indian chickens.") Cast your eagle eyes over the list and then you can choose your own bird of paradise. (Okay. It's not always paradise, but for the country's 60th celebrations, you could get into the mood and admit it could be worse. At least we are free people - dror, by the way, means both freedom and sparrow - and that's something to sing about. I think we survive on a wing and a prayer.) At any rate, the choice (in Hebrew alphabetical order) includes the bulbul, baz adom (lesser kestrel), duchifat (hoopoe), hochit (goldfinch), nesher mikrai (griffon vulture); siksak (spur-winged plover), tzufit boheket (Palestine sunbird) and pashosh (graceful warbler) - used also as a term of endearment for cute kids and animals: A mom might tell her daughter: "Pashosh, at ochelet kmo tzipor," which literally means "you are eating like a bird," i.e. not nearly enough for the average Jewish mother. Also on the list are the shaldag lavan hazeh (white-breasted or Smyrna kingfisher) and the tinshemet levana (barn owl). Incidentally, I learned something unexpected years ago when writing a story on the use of barn owls as a biological pesticide, safely ridding fields of rodents. I made a series of appointments with various experts and only later realized that a meeting scheduled for nine meant 9 p.m. These researchers, naturally, aren't up early with the birds: They're up late with the night owls (a concept known in Hebrew just as "night birds," tziporei layla.) The many ornithologists I have met over the years have been anything but birdbrained, using their knowledge and bird's-eye view of the environment to benefit both humans and avies. Dr. Yossi Leshem, a leading figure in the SPNI's program "Migrating birds know no boundaries" (Tziporim nodedot einan yod'ot gvulot), notes the idea of having a national bird suits Israel because of the huge number (some 500 million) of migrating birds (540 species) that pass through our skies twice a year, many of them outstandingly beautiful. Hebrew has a phrase which literally means having "birds in the head" - "tziporim barosh" - but it is used more to express confusion and being harebrained. One phrase that has safely migrated from language to language, however, is "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush" which in Hebrew translates as: "Tov tzipor (ahat) bayad mishtayim al ha'etz." Empty-nest syndrome might not translate exactly into Hebrew but the popularity of the Arik Einstein song in which he sings of the young birds which have have flown from the nest ("Hagozalim sheli azvu et haken") and urges them to take care shows the sentiment strikes a chord. After all, perhaps the most important bird is what is known as tzipor hanefesh - the soul bird - which Michal Snunit describes in her poem as the bird which "lives deep, deep within the body" and knows all our desires and pain. And as Leshem, and other Israeli ornithologists, like to note: "Mi lo halam la'uf?" "Who hasn't dreamed of flying?" [email protected]