The Birdmen of Istanbul, a film by Ali Naki Tez, follows the reclusive, fascinating old men who have devoted their lives to tending Istanbul’s songbirds. The documentary opens on two old men discussing a mysterious ailment. It alienates you from your family, your work, your regular social circle, they say, before revealing the culprit: bird disease. Not bird flu, but an obsession with birds so intense that it has brought grown men to tears, bankrupted others, and lifted others to transcendent heights of joy.
An ecological message
Tez’s film, which can be watched in its entirety on his website, does more than reveal the intricate details of the lives of Istanbul’s songbird owners and enthusiasts, though that is the main focus of the film.
Most of the city’s birdmen are at or past retirement age, and their passion for songbirds harkens back to an earlier age in Istanbul’s history. The practice of rearing songbirds used to be the domain of Istanbul’s Greek and Armenian minorities, but passed on to the Turks in the mid-20th century when many of those minorities left the city. One man mournfully recalls letting his birds fly free during World War II, when rations prevented him from buying their food.
More surprising in this collective memory of the city, however, is the extent to which wildlife penetrated the city just a few decades ago. Many of Tez’s subjects describe hunting for birds around buildings that now adjoin highways, or in meadows that are now factory complexes.
Not all environmentalists would admire the birdmen of Istanbul. For one thing, many flout the ban on catching and caging wild goldfinches and greenfinches, which are endemic to Turkey. But their devotion to these creatures reflects an appreciation for the natural world that is very often lacking in modern Turkey.
“People used to feed birds like they grow flowers in pots,” says one man of the former prevalence of bird rearing.
The world of the birdmen
Tez interviews birdmen all over the city, with particular attention to the Istanbul cafes that are devoted to birdmen and their pets. Like any male-dominated cafe in the city, the birdmen lounge around small tables gripping tulip-shaped tea glasses, swapping stories — the only difference being the covered cage on each table, and the fact that many of their stories revolve around a particularly prized bird.
Much of the documentary focuses on the quality that makes these birds so bewitching: their songs.
Watch the entire Birdmen of Istanbul movie below:
The birdmen can imitate a remarkable variety of sounds that emanate from the finches, ranging from melodic mating calls to more drum-like aggression sounds. Some of the birds, according to the birdmen, are “broken”, meaning that their call stutters or hits false notes. A birdman with a broken bird can expect to be thrown out of a birdmen cafe.
To most, the idea of a bird warbling competition is slightly absurd. But when Tez films one at the end of the documentary, the three minutes of pure birdsong takes on a whole new meaning, and the apprehension of the contestants’ owners makes perfect sense. For each, the event represents a culmination of an endeavor that has consumed his life, and a passion that makes it worth living.
Read more about wildlife in Turkey:
Chemical Waste Destroying Turkey’s Historical Bafa Lake Reserve
Hydroelectric Dam Threatens “Ecological Massacre” in Turkey
In Black Sea Village, Turks Use Bird Language Instead of Cell Phones
Banded Israeli Bird Suspected of Espionage in Turkey
Image via The Birdmen of Istanbul