Ornithology: Working to save Endangered Breeds and Species

There are numerous breeds and species that have been consumed for thousands of years, but are now in danger of disappearing. The OU has spent a tremendous amount of resources researching and documenting which avian species were traditionally considered kosher. They have assembled a database on these kosher birds that has been widely used by outside researchers who want to understand what was being consumed in various parts of the world.

Recently, a number of dedicated foodies formed an organization called the Biblical Ornithological Society. The goal of the society is to study the different birds that were consumed in different parts of the world, with a particular focus on birds that were mentioned in the Bible. While the focus of the society was originally academic, it was soon realized that many breeds and species which were historically consumed in all parts of the world were rare – very rare. There were some domestic breeds of fowl that were once common worldwide and are now raised by fewer than a dozen farmers.

While most of the commercially raised birds tend to taste similar, there are ancient breeds that were raised for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years for taste. The texture of the meats, the colors of the skin and fat content were all selectively bred. From a kosher perspective, some of these birds had been intensely debated by rabbinic authorities hundreds of years ago. All the scholarship associated with a breed or species would be only theoretical if the bird is no longer in existence. The members of the Biblical Ornithological Society felt that there were very few people who appreciated how much was being lost, and if they did not take action to prevent the extinction of these birds, it was unlikely anyone else would.

At first the society contacted the local zoos, to see if they could fund the conservation of these breeds and species. The New York area zoos were not interested in the conservation of domestic breeds of fowl, especially if the breed is not aesthetically exciting. Many zoos sadly explained that they were cutting back on some of their avian species, because they required resources the zoos felt were better allocated elsewhere. It was thus that the Biblical Ornithological Society, decided to breed these exotic birds themselves.

Farmers in upstate New York were hired to maintain the flock, but the birds did not flourish. The exotic fowl could not be kept under the same conditions or fed the same food as the typical barnyard variant. The birds that needed to be saved needed to be protected from the elements and fed the highest quality food. They needed adequate space, and could not be confined to small cages. It was therefore decided that the Biblical Ornithological Society would purchase and maintain its own facility. They chose a facility in Nassau County, NY, so the members could regularly visit and ensure the birds received proper care.

Although there are many biblical birds which are not kosher, the society decided to incorporate the research in the archives of the Orthodox Union and focus not only on birds mentioned in the Bible, but on birds that were kosher by tradition.

The society currently has four indoor aviaries dedicated to breeding species that were researched and identified by the Orthodox Union. Each of the birds in these aviaries has been determined to be kosher by the OU rabbinical authorities and were at one time consumed as kosher. There are three indoor heated aviaries. Two are dedicated to breeding rare species of partridge and turtledoves and one is being used to raise waterfowl. There is an additional unheated aviary that is dedicated to waterfowl, quail, and partridges.

The goal is to maintain at least a dozen birds from each breed or species — as genetically diverse as possible. To this end, many more birds will be hatched than the Biblical Ornithological Society can hope to maintain. Each year, through Ask OU and OU Kosher Coming, more than twenty educational institutions ask for presentations on the identification of kosher birds.

Taking advantage of its proximity to New York City, the society will send ambassador birds out to be classroom pets at the local schools. The birds will include a curriculum geared to helping the children understand the importance of conservation and the benefits of diversity. Schools will be also be able to receive incubators and hatching eggs from the Biblical Ornithological Society. The children will be able to watch the eggs hatch, and then raise the birds. Most of the birds will be donated to summer camps or petting zoos. Exceptional specimens will be used to further the breeding programs for these rare and endangered species.

The current facility is strictly utilitarian, dedicated to breeding and not exhibition. Many of the birds are flighty and will indefinitely leave their nests if they are disturbed. For this reason, visitors are not allowed at the facility, although arrangements will be made for scholars to visit the aviaries in which the birds are not sitting on eggs. In recognition of the help rendered by the OU, the society will make the birds available to Ask OU and OU Kosher Coming presentations whenever possible.

Other scholars wishing to study the birds, many of which are not found anywhere else in the United States, can make an appointment to view the non-breeding birds. If you would like more information please email chad.bayad@gmail.com.

Most people have heard about the society through word of mouth. In the few months of operation the society was pleasantly surprised by the number of people willing to donate birds to its breeding programs. Sadly, part of that response has been from people trying to desperately get rid of an unwanted pet, usually a parrot. It is debatable whether parrots are mentioned in the bible (perhaps they are mentioned in Leviticus Chapter 11 or Deuteronomy Chapter 14) but the parrot is neither kosher nor is it part of any biblical cuisine. The society has adopted half a dozen parrots, but has since stopped due to space concerns. The parrots do not do well in aviaries, nor can they be kept together. The society is considering building a facility dedicated to parrots, but at the moment all funds have been earmarked to biblical kosher birds.

Rabbi Chaim Loike serves as OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator focusing on eggs, spices and chemicals. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Touro College and Yeshiva University. He has recently been elected Director of the Board of the Biblical Ornithological Society. Rabbi Loike lives with his children in West Hempstead, NY