Colorful strangers: the many lives of Istanbul’s birds
Birds has been an important part of Istanbul, bringing colors to the city and people’s daily life.

By Joshua Bruce Allen

“Isn’t it something of an adventure, the joy of millions of birds liberated outside of mosques, synagogues, and churches, the joy of people, for hundreds of years? I know that one day someone pleasant, intelligent, pure-hearted will arrive to write a beautiful, joyful, hopeful history of Florya’s birds, and then Istanbul will become a little more beautiful, a slightly more magical city,” wrote novelist Yaşar Kemal in 1978. Sadly, his novella The Birds Have Also Gone was not such a hopeful story. In this tale, city-dwellers no longer care about releasing birds outside the mosques—and eventually, the bird-sellers become so desperate that they have to eat their own birds. Through the heavenly life and hellish end of these birds, Kemal expresses a conflict between man and nature that is even more relevant today.

Geographically speaking, Istanbul is a bird magnet. Just as humans find the city’s Eurasian character attractive, so birds take advantage of its fateful location—the shores of the Bosphorus provide air currents that make an effortless flight for migrating birds. A total of 483 bird species can be seen in Turkey, and you can see around 70 percent of these in Istanbul. Over one million storks and birds of prey alone pass overhead between the European and Asian shores every year. 

But the Bosphorus is not the only attraction, as ornithologist Sercan Bilgin told The Guide Istanbul. “The Marmara and the Black Sea, the northern forests, Büyükçekmece, Küçükçekmece, the Terkos and Ömerli lakes, and the woods and parks make Istanbul an attractive center for birds,” says Bilgin. “While our lakes offer a lot of areas for water birds to feed and settle in the winter months, the Haydarpaşa piers give cormorants a nesting place, seagulls and shearwaters find food in the Bosphorus, and parrots find a home in the woods and in the parks.”

Dolmabahçe Aviary

Director Naki Tez’s film Birdmen of Istanbul documents a more secretive side to the bird metropolis. In hidden cafes, men hold competitions to find the birds with the most beautiful songs. These contests have complex rules about the type and series of sounds that the birds produce. Artists Cemre Yeşil and Maria Sturm’s project For Birds’ Sake captures the aura of the birdmen through photographs and a book of the same name. As Yeşil and Sturm told The Guide Istanbul, these men keep birds for emotional reasons, not practical ones. “For them, this is an escape from life that turns into a life-long journey. It’s all about listening to the singing of the birds,” said the artists. “It can also be considered a way of meditating, something they need in order to feel good. They also socialize around this lifestyle, meeting at these coffee places for singing competitions or just to listen to each other’s birds.”

Surprisingly for a photo series about birds, we do not see birds in Sturm and Yeşil’s images. “The birds are already veiled by the birdmen in order to make the bird sing more beautifully. So the secrecy is already there within the nature of this phenomenon,” they explained. “We really liked the idea that the bird appears in the mind of the viewer.” 

In metaphorical terms, we might see similarities between the veiled birds and the tendency of conservative societies to keep women covered up or behind closed doors—a comparison made explicit in the title of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. As Yeşil and Sturm state, the birdmen are exclusively male, and the sentiment they have for birds is almost romantic. “Generally, the bird becomes an interruption of actual husband-wife relationships, because the wives don’t really enjoy this interest for different reasons: dirtiness, jealousy, and so on,” they explain. “However, in our adventure we met the one and only wife who actually enjoyed helping her husband, who was a real bird master. She was exceptional though.”

But this interesting hobby was not born overnight. The Middle East has a long history of bird-keeping, and Europeans first learned how to use carrier pigeons during the Crusades. French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf writes, “As the Arab mobilization against the Franj (Europeans) became better organized, a regular pigeon-post service was established between Damascus, Cairo, Aleppo, and other cities, the state even paying salaries to the people in charge of raising and training these birds.” If pigeons are your passion, the Edirnekapı pigeon market is on Hoca Çakır Caddesi in Fatih every Saturday and Sunday.

This tradition was passed from the Arabs to the Ottomans, who even built birdhouses on the outer walls of mosques in Istanbul. Musician and photographer Cihan Gülbudak has pictured many of these Ottoman birdhouses with an aerial drone. The birdhouses on Yeni Valide Sultan Mosque and Ayazma Mosque in Üsküdar are so ornately carved that they look like tiny mosques themselves. Look out for these miniature marvels on the southern walls of mosques, tombs, ferry piers, and libraries. Those with sharp eyes can also see birdhouses on the Taksim maksemi, the squat stone tower on the corner of Taksim Square and İstiklal Caddesi.

The Ottoman sultans were equally enthusiastic about birds in their own homes, as can be seen in the birdhouses at Topkapı Palace and the aviary at Dolmabahçe Palace. One reason for birds’ popularity among Muslims comes from a story of Muhammad, who once hid in a cave on Mount Thawr. By placing a pair of doves at the entrance of the cave, Muhammad convinced the enemy Quraishi fighters that he was not there, saving his life. When Sultan Abdülmecit had Dolmabahçe Palace constructed in 1856, he chose a more modern version of the birdhouse: the outdoor aviary. The birds in the restored Dolmabahçe aviary now include canaries, parakeets, cockatiels, peacocks, quails, pheasants, and chickens.

Yeni Valide Sultan Mosque

This interest in birds was not confined to Muslims. Above the door of St. Mary of the Spring in Zeytinburnu is a carved stone showing a fight between two cockerels. When Sultan Mahmud II gave permission for the church to be built in 1883, the Greek and Armenian communities could not agree on who would own the church. This argument was settled with a cockfight, and the Greek cockerel won.

As Turkey entered a more secular era, birds became attractive decorations for Istanbul’s hotels and businesses. A fine example is the Grand Hotel de Londres, which was built in 1892 to accommodate travellers arriving on the Orient Express. In the downstairs salon, you will find a slightly dusty but still confident African Grey Parrot. Then take the elevator to the large roof terrace, where in the summer every corner is filled with twittering canaries and finches.

A birdwatcher’s paradise

In the natural world, there is one rule we can rely on: where there are birds, there will be birdwatchers (or twitchers, if you prefer). The community of Istanbul received a boost in November of 2015, when the city opened a birdwatching tower in Feneryolu, Sarıyer. The spot is close to Keskin Viraj (meaning sharp bend), where migrating birds are funnelled together by a turn in the Bosphorus. 

This tower will witness its first migration season from March to May, and it is hosting a birdwatching festival on March 26-29. “Every spring and autumn come the swifts with their high-pitched voices, hundreds of thousands of storks and birds of prey fill the skies, and the wagtails, finches, goldfinches, siskins, and bee-eaters accompany the lower birds of prey from the northern to southern hemispheres and back again every year,” says ornithologist Bilgin. In autumn the preferred birdwatching spots are Toygar Tepe in Beykoz and Büyük Çamlıca Hill. If seaside birdwatching seems more appealing, then Riva on the Black Sea coast is also recommended.


However, the inexorable urban sprawl of Istanbul presents a new set of problems for humans and birds. “As the city grows and its population increases, incidents such as seagulls swallowing pieces of plastic, migratory birds colliding with buildings’ windows at night, storks becoming entangled in strings or plastic bags, the devastation of bee-eaters’ nesting places, and birds of prey getting caught in the current of power lines are becoming more common,” Bilgin explains. So what can we do to preserve this prehistoric spectacle? “When people realize that they share their living space with other creatures and start to respect their environment, it will make it easier for birds to survive,” the ornithologist told The Guide Istanbul. “When nature is untouched, it sustains itself in a definite order. Today the greatest threat to species that are close to extinction is the loss of their living spaces.”

More about the birds of Turkey

  • This site currently has over 4,000 members, who contribute a large archive of bird images from all over Turkey.
  • This project aims to protect the threatened Yelkouan shearwater in Turkish waters.
  • From birds to insects and mammals to trees, this site documents images of almost 6,000 species found in Turkey. 
  • Here you can find more of the For Birds’ Sake project.

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