Birds of the Upper Mesopotamia
Suat Öğüt

The Bonelli’s eagle

The Bonelli’s Eagle known as the “tavşancıl” bird in Turkish, breeds in Hasankeyf and Güçlükonak. In Hasankeyf, their nests sit about 40–43 meters above the river, while in Güçlükonak, they nest roughly 30 meters higher. They spend winters in open areas but live in forests and rocky mountains for most of the year. They’re sedentary, typically laying 1–3 eggs in nests on trees or rocks. Egyptian vultures are about 55–65 cm in size, resembling a honey buzzard by their wingspan, tail, and neck. They weigh around 2 kg. Adult Egyptian vultures have white backs and bodies with black stripes under their wings. Their young have brown tops and chestnut-red undersides. They glide with straight wings, and their claws and eyes are yellow. They mainly hunt mammals and small birds and make a melodious ‘klui-klui-klui’ call.



Cretzschmar’s Bunting

Cretzschmar’s Bunting (Emberiza cineracea) is an exquisite bird species that belongs to the bunting family, although some researchers place it in the finch family. It goes by several names, including the Ash-colored Bunting, Grey Bunting, and the Cretzschmar’s Bunting. These birds have a remarkable range, with their habitat extending from the southern regions of Turkey and Iran to their wintering grounds around the Red Sea, northeastern Africa, and Yemen. In Turkey, you can find them nesting in the rocky hills of the Tigris River basin, and this area hosts one of Europe’s largest populations, ranging from 80 to 140 pairs, making it a significant presence in the avian world.


They measure about 16–17 cm, displaying a slender physique and a tail adorned with white feathers. Their beaks are sturdy and relatively pale with fewer streaks. The striking contrast in their feathers is captivating, with dark streaks on a grey backdrop, transitioning into rich browns as you move toward their wings. The adult males sport pale yellow crowns, and their mustache area and throat exhibit vibrant streaks. In southern Turkey, you’ll find these males with yellow lower parts, while their counterparts in the east tend to have gray lower parts. The females boast brown-gray hues, with white throats and subtle yet charming yellow streaks in their mustache area. As for the young ones, their bellies are elegantly plain in pale tones, complemented by striped breast feathers. They primarily thrive on a diet of seeds but also eat insects when nurturing their precious chicks. They choose the dry, rugged slopes of mountains for nesting and typically lay about three eggs in their cozy nests. When they communicate, their calls are sharp and mellifluous, sounding like ‘zru-zru-zru-zru,’ adding a touch of musicality to their presence in the wilderness.



The Collared Pratincole

The Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola) is a bird species belonging to the pratincole family. They inhabit milder regions of Europe, southwestern Asia, and Africa. These birds are migratory, spending their winters in tropical Africa. In Turkey, the population breeding along the Tigris River is limited to the Silopi-Dicle Floodplains Important Bird Area (IBA) within the Bostancı area.

Collared Pratincoles measure around 24–28 cm, with a wingspan ranging from 60–70 cm. They have short beaks and legs, long pointed wings, and a deeply forked tail. Their backs and heads are light brown, while their wings are darker brown. Their bodies are white, and the undersides of their wings are chestnut-colored. They are agile hunters. They perform acrobatic maneuvers while hunting, and they live in flocks. They prefer habitats near water with muddy, short, or scattered vegetation. They make a ‘kik-kik-kik’ sound while calling.

The Great Thick-knee

The Great Thick-knee (Hoplopagrus indicus) is a sizable and multi-colored bird in the stone-curlew family. Unlike some relatives, it doesn’t dig burrows and prefers terra firma. These birds are known for their striking appearance with a red bill, eye ring, and wattles, alongside bright yellow legs, blackheads, and chests. In flight, they display a graceful wing-flapping style.

Their plumage shares similarities with the Senegal Thick-knee and Indian Stone-curlew, yet they stand out with their white tail tips and a black band just behind the tail. Young Thick-knees sport paler tones, nearly white throats and necks, cool toned brown feathers elsewhere, and underdeveloped eye wattles. Great Thick-knees are known for their timid nature. They emit a sharp, piercing call often described as ‘did-ti-du-it.’

These birds favor open areas, especially the banks of freshwater bodies and grassy agricultural fields. They breed exclusively in the Dicle River Valley, the sole breeding area in Turkey and Europe, with an estimated 40–80 breeding pairs. Their breeding spots are in suitable riverbank habitats and floodplains along the main river channel.



The Pied Kingfisher

“The Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis) is a bird species belonging to the Cerylidae family. They are distributed across various continents, from the Sahara Desert in Africa to regions spanning Turkey, China, India, and South Asia. Most of these birds are non-migratory and prefer sedentary lifestyles. In Europe, they predominantly breed in Turkey, with only a few found in Southern Cyprus. Their population has decreased significantly by over 80% in the past 15 years. The last remaining breeding grounds in Europe are along the banks of the Tigris River in Turkey, as the population along the Euphrates River has largely vanished due to extensive dam construction and habitat loss. In Important Bird Areas (IBAs), their population is estimated to be around 16–26 pairs.


Pied Kingfishers are characterized by their distinct black-and-white plumage and loud calls. They are relatively larger than other kingfisher species and primarily feed on fish, crustaceans, and aquatic insects in salty and fresh water. They have an average size of approximately 25 cm. Males typically have two full or broken black breast bands, while females have one. They exhibit black eye masks, white eyebrows, and short feathers on their heads. The edges of their tails are white, with black tips. Juveniles display gray breast bands. Pied Kingfishers are known for their tamable nature. These birds construct nests in holes along riverbanks and lake shores, often characterized by their high-pitched ‘chirrik-chirrik-chirrik’ calls.”



The Little Swift

The Little Swift (Apus affinis) is a bird species from the swift family.

It breeds only in Turkey across Europe, except for a single pair in Spain. Little Swifts breed in the cliffs and caves of the canyons along the Tigris River. Their breeding area is limited to the rocky outcrops in the main river channel. They are small in size, with a wingspan of 33 cm. Their feathers are black except for the white rump extending to their flanks. They have a short, square-shaped tail, giving them a robust appearance. Their tail base is broad and white. They are migratory birds with wide migration routes, commonly seen in most of Europe and Asia. Little Swifts build their nests in buildings or in cliffs by creating holes. They produce a fast, high-pitched, and undulating trill. While singing, their voice rhythmically rises and falls, emitting a much thinner sound compared to swallows.



 The Egyptian Vulture

The Egyptian Vulture, also known as the Small Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), is the only species in the Neophron genus and is the smallest vulture in Turkey and Europe. This species breeds on cliffs extending along the valleys in conservation areas located in places like Dicle Floodplains, Hasankeyf, and Güçlükonak/Taşkonak. It measures 60–70 cm in length. Their wingspan is between 155–180 cm. Its body and wings are white, while its wing feathers are black. It feeds on carcass remains, scraps, and waste.


Between 1960 and 2010, more than half of this species disappeared, leading to its classification as “endangered” by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). According to Birdlife International, Turkey is home to half of the European population of this species.



The Lesser Kestrel

The Lesser Kestrel (Falco naumanni) is a small species of falcon from the falconidae family. This species breeds in the Dicle Floodplains (IBA 23), Hasankeyf (IBA 25), Güçlükonak/Taşkonak (IBA 26), and Bostancı (IBA 27) areas. In the Hasankeyf canyons alone, there are nests of about 30–35 pairs.


As a small raptor, Lesser Kestrels measure 27–33 cm in length with a wingspan of 63–72 cm. While they bear a resemblance to the Common Kestrel, they have relatively shorter wings and tails. Male Lesser Kestrels, resembling the male of the Common Kestrel, have grayish feathers on their heads and tails but lack dark spots on their backs.


Females and young individuals have lighter coloration. Their call is a distinctive and sharp “chay-chay-chay,” unlike the “kee-kee-kee” call of the Common Kestrel. Unlike hawks, Lesser Kestrels have pale-colored talons, a distinguishing feature that becomes apparent only up close. They primarily feed on insects and nest colonially in buildings, cliffs, or tree cavities, laying 3–6 eggs.



The Great Bustard

The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) is a timid bird species. It is one of the world’s largest flying birds, with a record as the most sizable in Turkey. It takes 5–6 years for them to mature. Males have a wingspan of about 260 cm and weigh around 18 kg, while females are half their size, maxing out at 8 kg. They have brown-spotted plumage and sturdy legs. Adults eat a varied diet, including seeds, grains, fruits, vegetation, insects, and small mammals. During breeding, they incubate their eggs for a month. These birds are critically endangered in most countries but find refuge in Turkey, primarily in the Bismil Plain Important Bird Area (IBA) near the Tigris River, where 30–35 of them are known to inhabit.



The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse

The Pin-tailed Sandgrouse (Ammoperdix griseogularis) belongs to the Pteroclididae family. This bird breeds exclusively in Turkey, particularly in the canyons and arid valleys of the Tigris River basin, making it unique to the entire European continent. It is a plump bird, measuring about 20–22 cm in size. Their bodies are sandy-colored with wavy white and brown stripes. The male has a distinctive black-striped grey head with a white line near the eye and along the cheek patch. Their necks are speckled with white patterns. The most distinguishing feature that sets them apart from the Arabian Sandgrouse (Ammoperdix heyi) is the pattern on their heads. The females have lighter colors and are more challenging to differentiate from the males due to their pale head pattern. They lay 8–16 eggs in nests they dig for breeding. Their diet consists of plant seeds and certain insect species. They make a whistling “hwit-hwit-hwit” call.



The Eurasian Roller

The Eurasian Roller (Coracias garrulus) is a bird species belonging to the Coraciidae family. Its main breeding habitat is the Hasankeyf region, and its global conservation status has been updated to Near Threatened (NT). It is a slender, crow-sized bird often found perched on wires or low trees. It has a thick, dark bill, a short square tail, and long, blunt-ended wings. A larger part of its body and wing coverts are turquoise and blue, contrasting with its black wingtips. Its bright reddish-brown back and dark blue leading edge of the forewing set it apart from other species. While airborne, it displays bright blue, purple, and black colors across its angular wings. The winter plumage of young Eurasian Rollers is more subdued. Their vocalizations are high-pitched, repetitive, and reminiscent of a “hak hak” sound while performing aerial acrobatics and courtship displays.



The Griffon Vulture

The Griffon Vulture (Gyps fulvus) is a robust vulture species within the hawk family.

Griffon Vultures share their rocky habitat with Egyptian vultures, typically nesting about 30 meters above the surface of the river. The Tigris Valley hosts a unique colony near Güçlükonak, comprising 25–30 pairs. They make their nests on cliff edges and rugged terrain. These birds usually lay a single egg and diligently incubate it. Measuring between 95–110 cm in length, with an impressive wingspan of 230–265 cm, they tip the scales at 6 to 10 kg. Their distinctive features include bald heads, expansive wings, and short tails. Their striking appearance is further accentuated by a white collar and a colorful beak, while the rest of their body is cloaked in dark plumage. Similar to other vultures, they are scavengers, primarily feeding on carrion. They hunt in packs and often dine on the remains of deceased animals in open areas. As they feast, they emit a symphony of sounds, including grunts and whistles.