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Goldfinch trainers seek to spread wings beyond Gaza

Palestinian trainers of singing goldfinches hope to one day take part in international competitions, but have been limited so far because of closed borders.
A Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) perches on a cherry branch in the village of Studencice April 22, 2009. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic (SLOVENIA ANIMALS ENVIRONMENT) - RTXE94M

TANGIER, Morocco — With their natural ability to learn melodies, goldfinches have attracted the interests of thousands of breeders and trainers around the world. Palestinian interest in the songbirds' varied colors and capacity to sing different melodies emerged in the 1980s.

There are mainly two types of goldfinch people. Some are interested in the natural singing of the birds. Contests are held to choose the birds with the strongest ability to sing harmoniously and in tune. Then there are those concerned with training the birds to sing musical sequences that vary from one country to another.

Many goldfinch breeders and trainers in the Gaza Strip wish to take part in international contests, and some breeders want to sell their birds at auctions. But so far they have been prevented from doing either.

“I tried several times to participate in international contests in Morocco, but I couldn't because the border crossings are closed," breeder Khalil Hamada told Al-Monitor.

Instead, they communicate with Moroccan goldfinch breeders via social media and online forums. Goldfinches are popular in all the Maghreb (northwest African) countries, but Moroccan goldfinch melodies are the closest to those of Palestinian goldfinches.

Hamada, who resides in the Sheikh Radwan district in Gaza City, breeds at least five singing goldfinches annually. The price for a well-trained bird can reach $3,000, but the value is highly dependent on the bird mastering the melody. A single mistake in a sequence can drop the price to $100.

If Palestinians could enter competitions, “we [would] have the ability to compete in our goldfinches’ own 'language,' but we need to get acquainted with the Moroccan goldfinches' language, which differs from the Palestinian melodies in terms of the series of tones arranged, the intros and outros, and number of tones in each section.”

He said, “We have started to establish a joint group for trainers and breeders of singing goldfinches in the Gaza Strip, and we are making efforts to hold competitions in Gaza in the presence of international judges.”

Having prize-winning goldfinches in international competitions would increase demand for the birds.

Training the birds requires a strict regimen. After chicks hatch, Palestinian goldfinch trainers isolate them for 27 days in individual covered cages in soundproof and semi-lightproof chambers to block any external static and light. These birds listen only to clean recorded music for six hours a day, intermittently. The birds continue some form of training for an entire year.

Moroccan goldfinch trainer Mohammed Said Yacoubi works in the Beni Makada district of Tangier. His training features combined Palestinian and Moroccan melodies, which he gets online.

Yacoubi told Al-Monitor, “The goldfinches’ Palestinian language is attractive. I train small birds to acquire the Palestinian and Moroccan melodies for an entire year. I have been trying to contact Palestinian trainers from Gaza to exchange our experiences.”

Abdelhak al-Zahweili, former head of the Moroccan Ornithological Federation and head of a Casablanca songbird league, told Al-Monitor, “Annual contests for singing goldfinches are held in Morocco in the presence of Spanish and Belgian judges. Goldfinches are evaluated at several levels, most notable among them their continuous singing capacity, the length, intros and outros of the melody, and the distance between the bird and the public and between the bird and judges when performing. We have noted that Palestinians, especially in the Gaza Strip, have great interest in goldfinches, but have not taken part in contests so far.”

Zahweili expressed his concerns about the potential of goldfinches becoming extinct in Morocco due to arbitrary hunting and the smuggling of birds from Morocco to Algeria. He added, “A law prohibiting the possession and poaching of goldfinches was issued Aug. 23, 2011, except for those individuals who took part twice in goldfinches’ annual contests after obtaining prior permission.”

Ahmad Fawzi, from El Jadida in Morocco, is the foreign relations director at the Moroccan Ornithological Federation. He told Al-Monitor, “The language of the Palestinian goldfinches is beautiful, but lacks the cadence, which concludes the section. We hope to find Palestinian trainers from the Gaza Strip capable of participating in annual contests held in Morocco.”

Fawzi revealed that an Arab union will be established to include all concerned songbird associations in all Arab countries. “The union’s headquarters will be in Tunisia, and we hope that Palestine becomes a member. We will be working in the coming months in 2017 to launch the union,” he said.

Said Abu Mustafa is a goldfinch trainer and breeder from the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip. He told Al-Monitor, “We have tried for many years to exchange experiences with trainers in the entire Maghreb. Palestinian trainers periodically meet to listen to the birds that we are training.” The melodies are evaluated, and birds are exchanged and sold.

“We rely on baby birds produced in cages and large chambers. The birds caught from the wild find it difficult to learn melodies, because they need a long period of time to get accustomed to the cages. It is difficult to train and teach them a language through melodies, because they had only been used to the sounds of nature.”

Taking part in international contests would prove trainers' efficiency, increase their expertise and keep them informed about the species, which is endangered due to poaching and deforestation.

Goldfinch aficionados believe the number of goldfinches, which are migratory birds to Palestine, has significantly decreased in recent years, even though thousands of goldfinches were brought in through the tunnels out of Egypt. In the absence of any official party concerned with migratory birds in Gaza, there are no accurate statistics on songbirds.

The Ynet News website reported Jan. 21 that two Palestinian minors were arrested for trying to smuggle wild European goldfinches out of Jordan in their pants. Guards at the Allenby crossing said they became suspicious when they heard tweeting sounds coming from the legs of the pair's pants. Each was carrying 19 birds, security officials said. At the same crossing in December, four people were caught trying to smuggle more than a hundred of the songbirds.

A wild goldfinch can be sold for $39, while people will pay as much as $1,500 for a goldfinch-canary hybrid, Ynet reported.

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