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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.

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The Philby’s Partridge. (iStockphoto)

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.

Loike with the partridges in his garage

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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Judging by that picture, not an ugly bird at all.

    My thought exactly. When I read the opening line of the article, I glanced back up at the photograph and scanned the caption to make sure it was in fact a picture of the Philby’s Partridge. Mr. Orbach, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, to be sure, but, wow, “ugly”? What gives?

      chayar says:

      Not only is the bird not ugly, it is gorgeous. An incredible hot-red beak with matching spectacles, tasteful smoky baby-blue, caramel, and rich brown patterned feathers and subtly shaded solid feathers, a sleek ebony collar (heart shaped!), and a cute (admittedly not sophisticated or awe-inspiring), round little body. What an incredible variety of creatures G-d has made which we can live with, benefit from, enjoy and even bond with, admire (and eat).

        rightcoaster says:

        Waitaminit — stop with the raving already about the beauty, or someone will wonder about your strange preferences for bonding (or is it bondage?).

    If you want to join the campaign feel free to visit :)

So glad the rabbi didn’t eat the parrot!

sidney51 says:

This story reminds me of the attendant at executions by injection who cleans the
condemned’s arm with an alcohol swab before the injection.

not ugly! jolie laide!

ugly bird? really? birds are one of the most beautiful of all hashem’s creations. further, we should try and save all animals- not just kosher ones. tikkun olam and tzar baalei chayim should be enough of a reason.

sidney51 says:

The bird looks like a New York City pigeon going to the Gay Parade.

AbigailOK says:

The very fact that a species in endangered and that of all people although nothing surprises me anymore today given the hearts of stone lots of us seem to have in these times when this whole planet is great peril and all animals and nature without them being guilty of it nor capable of acting. Humans are asleep or too greedy and cruel. Like this absolute incompetent, egotistical if not outright amoral rabbi going against Torah. And no one says anything about it? Who cares how the bird looks? Keeping birds in a cage in a garage is enough to call HSUS or the police. But no, people just comment that the bird is beautiful or that it is good the parrot did not get eaten. You all keep shabat and learn your daf yomi? Apparently not mussar or the laws of tza’ar ba’alei chayim in case your own character does seem to lack any love or compassion. Good luck buying your next IPad, or Gucci bag.

ivygar says:

I live in England, where the greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) is a native bird. I find it hard to consider the greenfinch kosher. Its diet includes insects.I can see it being used for sacrifice, but not for eating- it’s rather small, about the size of a sparrow. In addition, some may not be eager to eat a songbird or a bird often kept as a caged bird. I am against capturing and encaging wild birds. I don’t think keeping a captive born bird in a cage is cruel. I raise canaries and Gouldian finches. They’re well fed and looked after, and we allow the birds out of their cages several times a week for free flight. The Gouldian finch is endangered in its native North Australia, but several breeding programs have helped increase its numbers in the wild.

    Chickens also eat insects, ducks eat fish. Both are widely accepted as kosher.

    rightcoaster says:

    Not only do chickens eat insects given half a chance, but the eggs of “free-range” chickens are a wonderful golden orange. I thought “predator” meant only with respect to other birds or of mammals. Geese and turkeys also eat insects, at least from time to time. Fish that are kosher eat smaller fish, and probably small crustaceans and worms (which in turn eat smaller crustaceans and worms).

All biodiversity has its place on this planet. We must strive to save all of it. The Philby’s partridge should be saved not because of kashrut, but because we would be destroying a creation of HaShem. The bird is not ugly it is beautiful, most galliforme game birds in Asia are.

The mention of the stork as chasidov is incorrect; it is from the Torah, not Russia. The stork is a chasidah, a “bird of chessed,” or lovingkindness; the Torah mistakenly believed that mother storks pecked at their own chests and fed their babies on their own blood (a strange conflation of Jewish mother and Oedipus to the max). Shakespeare agreed. For my part, the rabbi, well-meaning tho’ he be (and I am a YU alum myself, of several schools), ought to leave the bird uneaten, and rescue it in the cause of tsaar ba’alei chaim (preventing danger to living things).

pierre says:

The bird is cleaver than it looks. It knows with all the fat it has human’s risk getting clogged arteries and get a heart attack. Birds revenge. Moral eat chicken.

Why “Philby’s” Partridge? In my mind this it yet another colonial moniker for a living creature that deserves better. Certainly this bird could be named in a manner more respectful of its long association with peoples who inhabited Yemen. Why not Yemenite Rock Partridge? Or anything that goes beyond a European announcing “I came, I saw, I named.”

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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.