Look who flew into my life

I’M just back after a short break from the Irish winter which took me to Morocco.

The other morning I was sitting on the terrace of a hotel on the edge of the Medina in Tangier having my breakfast. The sun was shining, the temperature had already passed 20 degrees and I had got over the culture shock of a breakfast without any pig meat —- it was all very pleasant.

There were house sparrows hopping around the terrace, picking up crumbs that fell from the tables. I was idly watching them when I realised that a pair of birds at my feet were something which I was fairly sure I’d never seen in my life before.

The body was a bright chestnut colour with a grey head and shoulders and white stripes on the face. I took the two birds under the table to be a pair and assumed (correctly as it turned out) that the duller coloured one with less pronounced facial stripes was the female. They were slimmer, more dainty birds than the house sparrows.

I had to wait until I got back to Ireland and my copy of Lars Jonsson’s Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East to try and identify them. An illustrated book is much better than the internet for that task.

First I looked up the sparrows. There were eight species in the book and my bird was none of them. Then I tried the finches. No luck either. I was despondently flicking through the buntings when my mystery bird jumped out at me. The house bunting.

Once you’ve made an identification the internet becomes far more useful than the bookshelf. From a series of articles and blogs by birders I learned it has recently been accorded the status of a full species, as distinct from a sub-species of the striolated bunting, that it’s confined to north west Africa and that in Morocco it has become commensal, meaning it lives with people.

One source said it was regarded as ‘sacred’ there. I don’t know enough about Islam to know if this is the correct term, but it certainly seems to be regarded with affection, in much the same way as robins are regarded here. It often comes into houses and mosques and seems to have a strange affinity with barber’s shops, something I haven’t really been able to puzzle out. It appears to have arrived in Tangier from places further south quite recently. The first record from the Medina I was sitting in was in 2006. Vagrants have already been reported from southern Spain and it could soon become a European breeding species.

There is a great sense of satisfaction about identifying a bird that is new to you and learning a bit about it.


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