Eat This Endangered Species
A partridge native to Yemen might go extinct. A rabbi is trying to save it, because he thinks it’s kosher.
As Loike started his project to “save” the Philby’s Partridge, he discovered that information about the bird is scarce; the last study of Yemen’s bird population was done in 2000. An uncaptioned photo in a guide book on kosher birds in Yemen has a photo of religious man holding up a string of slaughtered birds that look like Philby’s Partridges. Loike had his own suspicions about the bird being kosher before: While he was breeding Chukar Partridges, a breeder had accidentally sent him a Philby’s, and the two birds mated and produced several eggs; if a bird can successfully mate with a species that is already known to be kosher, then that bird falls into the same halachic category as the kosher species. Loike was also interested in discovering whether Yemenite Jews had a specific mesorah, tradition, about the bird. “We don’t know of any other birds that the Yemenites ate,” Loike said. “It’s a link in the mesorah.”
Having worked with the Museum of Natural History in the past, Loike called for help. While the museum typically has 15 to 20 specimens of most birds, they only had one skin of a Philby’s Partridge.
The donor paid the only Philby’s Partridge breeder in the United States to ship birds to Loike. These birds, Loike discovered, were descendants of a flock raised by the San Diego Zoo; the zoo, he said, had stopped housing them and the birds eventually made their way to the breeder.
“The San Diego Zoo said they were easy to breed but not particularly exciting, beautiful, or nice, so people aren’t interested in saving them,” Loike said. “You go to the zoo you want to see panda bears. You don’t want to see a bird that only exists because people dedicate their resources to it.”
Loike currently has eight pairs of Philby’s Partridges in two cages in his garage. His plan is to raise them full-cycle, from eggs to adulthood, and then determine once and for all if they are kosher. “I have to know everything about the bird,” Loike explained. “The reason I do that is because sometimes you get surprises. I don’t want to have a bird that’s vegetarian that suddenly goes predatory when it is pregnant.” He also hopes to find a Yemenite slaughterer who can identify the birds. Afterward, Loike wants to interest a zoo or a conservation outfit in keeping a stable population of the birds in the United States. He is the midst of a fundraising campaign in the hopes of raising $5,000 to help cover the cost of breeding. On the $5 level of donation he offers a “Feather in Your Cap” perk, a literal feather from the partridge. At the highest donation, $540, he will stuff a Philby’s Partridge on its natural death and send it to you (“It might take a few years, but you can’t get this anywhere else,” he writes).
It might seem strange for Loike to spend so much time and energy to save a bird that may not even be endangered in the first place. But, Loike explained, he’s not a bird conservationist. He’s far more interested in another endangered species: Yemenite Jews—especially those who can correctly identify the Philby’s Partridge as being kosher.
“The fact is that the mesorah is vanishing,” he said. “I believe that no one is paying attention to an entire mitzvah: identifying kosher birds. All this knowledge which has been saved in Europe, North Africa, in the Middle East for thousands—not hundreds, thousands—of years is going to be lost.”
Even though Loike has devoted himself to breeding Philby’s Partridges, and keeping alive a tradition of eating the kosher bird, he isn’t particularly interested in eating the bird himself.
“I don’t eat exotic birds,” Loike said. “I like chicken.”
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