by Whit Gibbons

June 25, 2006

Sgt. 1st Class Jonathan Trouern-Trend gave a most unusual report at the Outdoor Writers Association of America last week: an account of bird-watching in Iraq. His intriguing talk, about his daily observation of birds during his tour of duty, was based on his book "Birding Babylon: A Soldier's Journal from Iraq" (2006, Sierra Club Books, San Francisco). The talk was sponsored by the Sierra Club.

The last time I can recall writing about Iraq and ecology was during the Gulf War 15 years ago. I referred to oil spills that were the result of storage tanks and refineries being bombed by U.N. forces and intentional dumping by Saddam Hussein's soldiers. During that war, at least 1 million, possibly as many as 6 million, barrels of oil entered the waters, polluting more than 300 miles of beaches, mangrove forests, and tidal marshes in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of dolphins and porpoises and more than 20,000 seabirds, including cormorants, grebes, flamingos, and herons, perished in the oil?contaminated waters.

Trouern-Trend's view of nature in Iraq was more uplifting than an account of oil spills in a previous war, and it looks beyond what he referred to as the "almost daily rocket and mortar attacks" in the current war. He demonstrated a positive approach to life, noting that "observations of nature offer connections that transcend events" in the world around us and that "nature binds us together." I really like his attitude, especially that he could focus on and enjoy nature no matter where he was and that he found "comfort that nature was all around us."

The book is mostly a daily journal recounting his bird sightings and other observations. Among the first birds he saw in Iraq were swallows returning from Africa in January, a sight reminiscent of their return to various regions in the United States. Like any birder anywhere, he was interested in adding to his life list, and during his first day in Iraq he was clearly ecstatic at having seen 26 kinds of birds and adding more "life birds" in a day than he had in more than a decade.

The incongruous mix of war and nature in "Birding Babylon" is captivating. The author explains how helicopters are considered safer than driving but fly as low as possible in hopes of not being spotted in advance, thus reducing enemy gunfire. He records in his journal that flying close to the ground, the helicopter once hit a bird that came through a window and landed on the floor. He identified it as a male pin-tailed sandgrouse. "I'd like to see one alive," he notes, "maybe later this year."

In his talk Trouern-Trend introduced the topic of the Mesopotamian Marshes of southern Iraq, an environmental casualty of Saddam Hussein's regime. In 1976 the vast wetland area was twice the size of the Everglades and home to thousands of wintering waterfowl. The area was also inhabited by a culture known as the Marsh Arabs, who lived off of the productivity of the natural marshlands. However, the Marsh Arabs, a 5,000-year-old culture, reputedly fell out of favor with Saddam, for reasons unclear to me, and became a target for attack during the 1980s and '90s. How do you eliminate a population that lives in a marsh? Drain the marsh and cut off the water supply. The wetlands decreased to 5 percent of their original size; they were turned into desert. Two Iranian rivers not under Saddam's control kept the remaining marshlands alive. Many of the Marsh Arabs died or dispersed to other regions; a culture was destroyed or at least severely disturbed; and hundreds of native species of birds and other animals disappeared. In 2003 efforts were made to restore the marshes and much of the vegetation and wildlife has now returned, including many of the birds.

"Birding Babylon" is a short but moving book. Trouern-Trend's last sentence describes a scene from his last day in Iraq, as he was leaving the dunes where he had been observing nature. "I saw a pure white dove circle over the camp. I'll take it as a good omen." Let's hope it was.

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