Bittersweet Encounters with one of the World’s Rarest Birds

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
An Asir Magpie in a village near Billahmer in the Asir highlands

I arrived an hour before sunup on a January morning at a small village northwest of Billahmer, in the highlands of the Asir region.

At about 2,700 meters above sea level, the early hour — coupled with stiff winds up over the edge of the Sarawat escarpment — meant, for the first time, I was properly cold in the Kingdom. I had a few layers on, but unfortunately, forgot my gloves back in Al Ahsa, forcing my hands to retreat into my pullover sleeves for warmth.

Sunlight began to invade from the east. Then, out of the twilight, appeared four magpies winging their way past me toward the village. These were the object of my morning’s foray — the Asir magpie (Pica asirensis) — one of the rarest birds in the world, numbering perhaps no more than 100 breeding pairs.

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
The pins in this eBird map represent the locations where Asir Magpies have been reported over the past ten years. This reflects not just how alarmingly restricted the range of species has become, but also how few birders and ornithologists have visited the region.

Magpies belong to the Corvidae family, famously intelligent birds that include ravens, crows, and jays. The name “magpie” derives from two sources. “Mag” is said to originate from English slang from around the 15th century, a diminutive of the name “Margaret” used proverbially to denote a “idle chatterer.” “Pie” comes from the name for the birds in Old French, which itself derives from pica, the Latin name for magpie. The “pie” in the English word “piebald,” like a piebald cow, is a reference to magpies and evokes their striking blackand- white plumage. Etymologically, the name “magpie” captures both the bold beauty and charismatic personality of these charming birds.

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
The Asir Magpie is a stunning black-and-white bird found only in the southwest of Saudi Arabia

Odd Sightings

The magpie with which western Europeans have long been familiar is the common and widespread Eurasian magpie (Pica pica). However, the Asir magpie, long believed to be an isolated population of the former, is in fact, a distinct species and endemic to the highlands of the Kingdom’s southwest, meaning they can be found nowhere else in the world.

The Asir magpie once ranged as far north as Taif, and as far south as Jebel Al-Qahar in Jazan Province. Unfortunately, their range appears to have shrunk dramatically over the past few decades, due in large part to the fragmentation of their preferred habitat — mature acacia and juniper woods — generally at an altitude of around 2,200 meters and higher.

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
Two in the group appeared to be observing the others as they foraged, suggesting these may be young birds

In recent years, these birds have only been recorded with some regularity in a few pockets of suitable habitat from Al Namas to the north, some 300 kilometers (km) south of Taif, to Billasmer, some 150 km north of Jebel Al Qahar. It is suspected that they have disappeared altogether from former strongholds near Abha, such as Jebel Soudah. However, odd sightings around al Bahah suggest that the magpies may still exist outside their current known range, but have simply gone undocumented in recent years. For this reason, I decided to explore areas where they had formerly ranged in the hope of casting a clearer light on their actual distribution.

The wooded wadi in which I found myself that chilly morning was an ideal nesting habitat for the magpies. Mature African juniper trees populated the bottom of the wadi, growing thick in places. Somewhere in the dense branches, the four birds I disturbed before dawn had been roosting, but now I could hear them in the distance, back toward the village, giving their distinctive contact call — aack aack aack — from which the magpies get their Arabic name, the “Ack-Ack.” I headed in their direction. I looked toward where I was parked only to see them gathered in a tree directly above my car. I quietly stalked off toward them, hoping not to scare them away.

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
The remains of an old magpie nest in a dead juniper. Another threat to the magpies is dieback of the mature junipers in which they nest, a loss that has been attributed to climate change.

Desperately Understudied

Yet, by the time I got there, the magpies had gone. So, I ventured back to the village proper to relocate them. I didn’t have far to go, as once I reached the main road and turned to the left, I spied a single bird foraging along the road’s edge and heard the others vocalizing not far off. I stopped and began filming the lone bird on the road and switched on my audio recorder to capture the sounds. I realized then that the bird I was filming was vocalizing as well, giving a soft call as it walked up the road in my direction.

This bird, or perhaps another, was giving the same call as the group foraged in a recently furrowed terrace field a short time later, becoming more insistent as it waited attentively on another individual flipping clods with its sturdy beak and poking at the soft dirt. I suspected then that these might be young birds learning to forage from more experienced adults, perhaps even the parents.

This group did not seem too fazed by my presence and carried on searching for food for nearly the half an hour I spent with them. There is scant literature about this species as it has been desperately understudied. There is still a lot to be learned about the ecology of Asir magpies, and even casual observations by birders, bird photographers, and citizen scientists can help reveal more about the lives of these wonderful, critically endangered birds.

On my way out of the village I heard more magpies, very close, and pulled over to record them. They were perhaps a half kilometer from the group I had just left only moments before, so I added them to the day’s count. These were making quite a ruckus around one of the houses and the fact that one was relishing a chicken leg on a nearby telephone pole hinted to the reason — the remains of a platter of rice with chicken.

I continued on toward the second spot, which brought me along the very edge of the towering escarpment. I made a brief stop to take in the views, which were stunningly clear. By the time I arrived at the next wadi, I had only an hour before I had to head back to Abha for the flight home. In that time, though, I did locate another four magpies, bringing the day’s total to 14, the most I had seen in a single visit to the Asir region.

A Morning with Magpies in Billahmer
The view from the edge of the Sarawat Escarpment near Billahmer

Extinction is Forever

Six months later I took my wife and a friend, Adam, to Billahmer to see the magpies, and while we did find two at the last spot I encountered during the previous visit, the larger group near the village was nowhere to be found. I worried then that something might have happened to them. What is extinction, after all, but a sudden, unexpected, and irreversible disappearance? A sudden silence where the magpies’ call once rang out? With researchers worried that their numbers will continue to spiral down, the day that the Asir magpie goes extinct may be much closer than we realize unless we act now.

Cliff Peterson

About the Author: Originally from Northeastern United States, Gregory Askew has been living and working in the Middle East since 2010.

While now essentially rootless expats, he and his family do have a foothold back home in the state of Texas, where he makes it back for family time about once a year. While he can never fully shake the pull of home, he has come to love the expat life and the opportunities to travel more widely this lifestyle has afforded him and his family. However, you won’t often find him lounging at a beach resort in parts unknown but rather prowling through forest at dawn or scanning wide desert and coastal vistas in pursuit of one of his life’s biggest passions—birds!

Besides birds and birding, Greg is also an avid language learner—while, according to him, still far from fluent, he has been teaching himself Arabic for the past ten years and can hold his own out in the Saudi wilds.

He currently works as an Advanced ITC Instructor at Aramco’s Industrial Training Center in Al Ahsa, where he lives with his wife, Michelle, a visual artist. You may find him birding at one of his haunts around Al Ahsa—Al Asfar Lake, Jebel Al Qarra, or Al Ahsa National Park—or maybe further afield in the mountains and wadis of the Asir Region.