Birders of the World Can Now Learn Close to a Thousand Species in Arabic

The new “Birds of the Middle East” app makes the region's rich avian offerings accessible to schoolkids, residents, and travelers.

Have you seen a rafraaf lately? How about a laqlaq? Or a yamama? Unless you're familiar with the lingo spoken by nearly 300 million people around the world, you wouldn’t know that these are the respective Arabic names for kingfisher, stork, and dove.

But birders in 22 Middle Eastern countries use these monikers, and now they, and anyone else who speaks and reads Arabic, can access translations for close to 1,000 other species with a new digital field guide. 

The app, which is the first of its kind and is free to download on both iPhone and Android devices, is based on the Arabic version of the Birds of the Middle East book, published by the Ornithological Society for the Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asia (OSME) and Birdlife Middle East in 2017. Regional specialities such as the Hypocolius, Sooty Falcon, and Crab Plover all feature in the guide, along with transcontinental range maps, illustrations, behavioral descriptions, and sound recordings. All species are searchable by their scientific names, allowing conservationists who haven't learned Arabic to use the app as a translation tool when working with local colleagues.

Kuwaiti birder and ornithologist Abdul Rahman Al-Sirhan was responsible for translating Birds of the Middle East from English for both the book and the OSME app. In doing so, he researched works dating back to 8th century AD when Arab scholars such as Al Jahiz and Abu Hanifa Dinawari began documenting the region’s wildlife. He also built on the work of more recent naturalists to standardize common names and use the classica; Arabic name, rather than translating word for word from English. 

International birders might find the app to be insightful, but Middle Easterners are the true target audience. “The internet and social media have played a part in increasing hobbies such as birdwatching and wildlife photography,” Al-Sirhan says. ‘’People here are slowly becoming more interested in the natural world.”

That rising interest is the key to conserving the Middle East’s unique ecology, says OSME Chairman Rob Sheldon. A soon-to-be-published study by the society and other regional experts estimates that up to 4.6 million birds are poached and hunted in Iraq, Iran, and the area known as the Arabian Peninsula. By introducing the app to school curriculums through the region, Sheldon thinks kids could be educated against illegal bird killing. “When people are able to put names to the things that they see on a daily basis, the more likely it is they will make a connection and think about how they can help and protect them,” he says. “An Arabic-language app, freely accessible to anyone with a smartphone, will allow us to reach and engage with a huge number of the region’s youth.”

The new field guide is also being used in OSME’s youth bird camps, one of the flagship projects funded by the nonprofit and led by local bird conservation groups in the region. The most recent session, held in Lebanon this month, saw young birders venturing out with the app in hand to help identify local species and learn what’s being done to conserve habitats.  

If anything, the Birds of the Middle East app draws attention to an often-overlooked part of the world. Birders who visit the region can witness natural phenomena that aren’t found anywhere else: a flamingo colony framed by the famed skyline of Dubai, the recently discovered Omani Owl in remote desert outposts, and 200 migrant species staging at the Basra Marshes, a UNESCO World Heritage site in Iraq. These stories of Middle Eastern wonders need to to be shared, and now there's a way to do that in native words.

Want to go birding in Arabic? Here are a few species’ names and their origins to whet your appetite:

  • Hud-hud: Just like in English, the name for the hoopoe is an onomatopoeic reference to its call. 
  • Mudabbaj: The Marabou Stork’s moniker simply translates to “ugly” stork.
  • Rafraaf: This word comes from the Arabic term for hovering, which kingfishers are quite adept at.
  • Tufahi: The Common Linnet is named so because of its alluring red feathers, which in Arabic are described as “apple-like.”
  • Zaqzaq and laqlaq: Plovers and storks, respectively, take their titles from their common calls.

Sajidah Ahmad is the secretary for the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, a volunteer-run organization that funds conservation, research, and education around bird life.