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A Bird in Hand

Mar 10, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Forward-deployed Marines posted at camps in northern Kuwait have been building a battery of chicken coops in the desert. The dozens of chickens who live with the U.S. troops posted near the Iraq border have been commandeered to serve as living chemical-weapons detectors. The idea may or may be taken seriously at the front, where they have high-tech particle sensors to complement the chicken batteries.
In Kuwait’s burgeoning press corps, the equivalent gestures are tongue-in-cheek, if not silly. CNN has named its office parakeets Bush and Blair, Saddam and Osama.
Late but not too little, a safety-conscious producer and an off-air reporter from ABC took a trip to the Friday animal market in the Shuwaikh Industrial area of Kuwait City. The market is a dusty, scenic and boisterous bazaar of a sort typical to most places between Morocco and Bangladesh but exceedingly rare in Kuwait.
Sometime before dawn each Friday morning a series of colorless car parks are transformed into a small city of chickenwire baskets and towers of claustrophobia-inducing steel cages. The emphasis is on birds. The volume is loud. Rows of conical enclosures house bright green parrots from India, singing finches, peacocks, turkeys, quails and dozens of exotically bred pigeons.
At a glance, it’s difficult to tell which birds are sold as pets and which are for eating. The vendors are mostly foreigners, as are most people in Kuwait. (Fewer than 40 percent of Kuwait’s residents are Kuwaiti; most are Asian or Arab expatriate workers.)
Egyptians and Pakistani salesmen carry more valuable produce on their shoulders: Gray African parrots and black-and-gold-ridged talking mynah birds. Cats, dogs, rabbits and guinea pigs are sold in adjoining lots. The local falcon trade is so vaunted (some birds fetch $50,000 and higher) that the real dealing happens indoors-but sellers can be seen walking through the aisles of lesser birds with falcons perched on their arms, fitted with leather hoods.
An Arabic-speaking driver helped the ABC team negotiate a good price on a pair of pretty Fischer’s lovebirds. An extra dinar ($3.30) purchased a larger, arabesque cage and 3 kilograms (about 6.6 pounds) of bird seed. That should feed Jaber and the Sheikha, named for Kuwait’s royal emir and his wife, for about two months. They brighten the ABC workspace at the top of the Sheraton al-Kuwait and breathe the clean air that breezes in off the Gulf.