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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.

Michael Orbach
February 05, 2013
The Philby's PartridgeiStockphoto
The Philby's PartridgeiStockphoto

Philby’s Partridge is an ugly bird. A native of northern Yemen, it looks vaguely like a New York City pigeon, but significantly worse—as if the pigeon had been in a bar fight. Some people worry that the bird, named for British explorer and possible Nazi collaborator Harry St. John Philby, might become endangered due to recent over-hunting and the destruction of its habitat. And yet the conservation movement to save the partridge is like tourism in its natural habitat in the tribal areas of Northern Yemen: It doesn’t exist.

Perhaps the only person in the world whose mission is to save these ugly birds, in fact, is Rabbi Chaim Loike, a rabbinic coordinator at the Orthodox Union. And his concern is less ecological than gastronomical: Philby’s Partridge, Loike says, may be kosher—and he wants to make sure the species survives so that future generations of Jews might eat it.

Loike has long had an interest in which birds are kosher. Taped to the door of his office in Manhattan is a hand-signed letter from the O.U.’s lead posek (decider), Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, stating that a wild turkey is the same animal as a domestic turkey and therefore kosher. That letter helped resolve a question over kashrut—although the wild turkey that Loike brought to his office at the O.U. wasn’t so excited to be welcomed by the Jewish community; it flew around and destroyed a computer keyboard. “I don’t know what he had against the keyboard,” Loike explained earnestly.

Turkeys aside, Loike’s focus is mainly on exotic birds. During his seven-year tenure at the O.U., he has raised Chukar Partridges, White Runner Ducks (which he describes as “bowling balls with legs”), Mallards, and even Laysan Teals—which at the time were considered extinct, although they were later reclassified. He attempted to prove that a greenfinch, a bird mentioned by Rashi, was kosher and used in a sacrifice during the time of the First and Second Temples. He also helped establish that different species of quail are kosher. In gratitude for his efforts, a Hasidic rebbe once gave him his African gray parrot. “You wouldn’t believe how much it talked,” Loike said.

With his unique history, Loike may be the world’s foremost halachic expert on birds. “When we have a question on the ID of a particular species or sub-species, he is who we contact,” said Ari Greenspan, a dentist in Jerusalem who also moonlights as a kosher bird enthusiast.

An autodidact, Loike took a course in shechita, ritual slaughtering, when he was a student at Yeshiva University’s ordination program. The next year, Y.U. asked him to teach the course, and he went to a local meat market and realized that he didn’t know which birds were kosher. He called up the O.U., and the organization agreed to help fund his research, which mainly consisted of finding old Eastern European shochtim, ritual slaughterers, and getting them to identify which birds they had slaughtered in the past.

“I was the one who had all the information—by accident,” Loike said.

At first glance, the Torah’s laws about kosher birds seem simple. While the Bible offers specific parameters about which land animals or fish are kosher, there are no general traits specified to determine whether birds are kosher. Instead the Torah gives a list of 24 forbidden birds in Deuteronomy 14 and Leviticus 11. However, there’s a Talmudic Catch-22: No one is exactly sure which species the 24 listed birds are.

“Every bird not on the list should be kosher, theoretically,” Loike explained, “But we don’t know what’s on the list.”

Even the two most commonly understood birds, a chasidov (stork) and an orev (raven), are subject to a dispute in the commentaries. The Talmudic tractate Chullin lists four signs by which a bird can be considered kosher (discovered, according to a commentator to the Tosafot, by Noah in the ark): whether the bird is predatory (predatory birds are not kosher); whether it has an extra toe (birds without an “extra” toe are not kosher); whether there is a crop at the base of its neck (if there is not a crop, the bird is not kosher); and whether it has a gizzard in which the membranes will separate when rubbed by hand (if it does not, it is not kosher). However, while some Sephardic Jews still adhere to those four signs, later commentators ruled those distinctions invalid as the basis for kashrut.

That is why Loike has his job. Orthodox Jews are only permitted to eat birds that have a mesorah—a tradition that they were once eaten by a Jewish community in the past, or if they can mate with another bird that has a mesorah attached to it. “We can’t make anything kosher,” explained Loike. “It’s either kosher or it’s not. The question is: Was this bird accepted in a previous generation as kosher? If we clarify that it was, we can eat it. Otherwise, we leave it as a mystery.”

And that’s where the Philby’s Partridge comes in. About four months ago, a fan of Loike’s lectures and a donor to the O.U. called him with a proposition: He believed that Philby’s Partridges were kosher and that they were becoming endangered. As evidence, the donor pointed out that it was almost impossible to get the birds in America. Loike was intrigued.

“They’re the only species of partridges that almost no one was raising in this country,” Loike said. “With the geopolitical craziness you never know. Sometimes it’s very good and sometimes it’s very bad. Philby’s Partridges are a desert species, and uncontrolled hunting can be dangerous for them.”

Richard Porter, the author of Birds of the Middle East and an adviser to Birdlife International, a global alliance of conservation organizations, acknowledged that some species might be under pressure in Yemen since the political upheavals of the Arab spring. Hunting levels have increased, even as development encroaches on wild bird habitats. But he is nonetheless skeptical about the seriousness of the threat.

“Whilst Philby’s Partridge has a restricted range, it would be a difficult species to eradicate,” Potter explained. “There are far more urgent conservation issues to deal with in Yemen: Arabian leopard, Arabian wolf, golden jackal …”

And, in fact, the Philby’s Partridge may not be endangered at all. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature classified the birds’ status as Least Endangered. Abdulrahman F. Al-Eryani, the former minister of Water and Environment for Yemen, was blunt in his assessment: “Philby’s Partridges are not in any way endangered in the high mountain in Yemen,” he said. “On the contrary, it is almost a pest for the poor sorghum farmers in these areas. There are more urgent and pending conservation issues to help with.”

‘If I’m right, this bird is in trouble. If I’m wrong, who cares?’

Loike was not put off by such criticism. “This isn’t like saving panda bears,” he said, “this is a pittance of resources.” And even if the birds weren’t endangered on a global scale or in their native Yemen, he added, they aren’t widely available in America and hardly any zoos keep them. Loike and his donor figured they could save the bird without much difficulty.

“If I’m right, this bird is in trouble,” Loike said. “If I’m wrong, who cares?”

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.”

Michael Orbach is a writer living in New York.