Poem of the Week / It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s... an Israeli?

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail

B is for the birds 

Lisa Katz

Israel is a bottleneck for migration routes;
five hundred million pass through each year.

Who came first?

The Indian silver bill established itself
along the Syrian-African rift in the 1920s.

The corncrakes and red-footed falcons
are just visiting, but

the bitterns are ours.
The northern wheatear has nothing to do

with wheat or ears.
A holdover from the Mandate,

like emergency regulations? Rare,
but a Kurdish wheatear was spotted in the Negev

during the war in Gaza. And Oriental skylarks
cross borders like foreign workers with wings.

Tree-tree-tree trill the little green bee-eaters,
not caring whose. Its multicolored sexes

look alike, which is against some beliefs.
O yellow wagtail and old world warblers,

fly catchers, sand grouse, shrikes and babblers,
sing cuckoo.

From a work in progress.


American-born Lisa Katz lives in Jerusalem. She is the author of "Shihzur" (Reconstruction), a book of her poems translated into Hebrew. She has also published volumes of translations of poetry by Agi Mishol, Admiel Kosman and Tuvia Ruebner. She infrequently writes book reviews for Haaretz.

‘Tis the season for birds to migrate from Europe to Africa, and as “B is for the Birds” notes, Israel is a major migration route. This sometimes leads to trouble: Birds misidentified as an enemy incursion have caused Air Force F-16s to scramble; fish breeders deplore water birds’ depredations to their ponds; and birds sucked into plane engines have caused emergency landings and even fatal accidents.

And yet the migrations are sources of interest and delight to scientists and nature lovers. The Society for the Protection of Nature maintains year-round birding centers around the country and organizes special events during migration seasons.

“B is for the birds,” however, is not only a knowledgeable nature poem. As the wry phrase “for the birds” in the title indicates and the opening line confirms – “Who came first?” – it also spoofs the loaded question: “Who belongs in this country?” Descendants of the pioneers who were in here “in the 1920s?” Tourists who are “just visiting?” Anyone native (“the bitterns are ours”)? Labor migrants (“foreign workers’)? Anyone regardless of appearance and sexual proclivities (“the little green bee-eaters”)?

The final words, “sing cuckoo,” are a comment on the craziness of it all and a reference to a Middle English partsong transcribed by a monk in the mid-13th century, “Sumer is icumen in,” about the beginning of summer when the birds once again fly over and visit Israel to migrate back to England. The refrain of the song is “Lhude sing, cuccu” – Loudly sing, cuckoo.


In invoking the folksong, is the poet implying, tongue in cheek at least, something about migratory Israelis, who flock, perhaps, to London or Berlin?

Listen to the song and read the original words and a modern translation here:

Migrating White Pelicans fly over the Hula Valley Nature Reserve, north of the Sea of Galilee, northern Israel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky
Lisa KatzCredit: Tineke de Lange

Click the alert icon to follow topics: