Turkey bridges the gap between Asia and Europe. As it does that, it offers a sweep of territory that’s carved into caves in Cappadocia and crumpled into mountains along both the Caucuses and the Aegean Sea. It’s a haven for all sorts of animal life, but what about the most common birds in Turkey?
Well…that’s what this guide is all about. It homes in on just five species that you might cross paths with as you saunter through the land of shisha pipes and the ancient Grand Bazaar. It’s certainly got some hot tips for budding ornithologists, revealing endangered ibises and elegant flamingos alike.
We’d say that the best time to go birdwatching in Turkey is in line with the peak vacation season of the summer. That’s because, as you’ll see, many of the birds listed here are migratory by nature. They come to Turkey for the months between April and May and then depart again for Africa by the start of the fall.
Greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus)
Greater flamingos aren’t common all over Turkey. However, venture out to the mountain-shrouded reaches of Lake Tuz in the very heart of the country, closer to Syrian border than to Istanbul, and you might just be in with a chance of seeing one of the largest colonies currently resident in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa.
Yep, a group numbering in the tens of thousands flocks here to breed in the warmer months. They come here and only here, since this is the only recognized flamingo nesting place in the whole nation. From around May onwards, visitors also flock to watch the pink-tinted bird building their unique floating nests just above the surface of the water. That puts them all ready for the hatching season, which sees baby birds emerge and learn to fly before jetting off for warmer climbs when the autumn swings around.
Greater flamingos are big birds. They can measure over 1.5 meters in height (about the same as your average teenage human). However, hollow bone structures help them remain light on their webbed feet, with even the largest specimens weighing in at just four or five kilograms in all. When born, flamingos are fluffy white. Later, they’ll turn a shade of dark grey and brown before taking on their iconic pink hue in adulthood.
These are certainly a bird worth seeking out in Turkey, if only for the wonders of Lake Tuz itself. The second-largest lake in the whole country, it sprawls some 1,600 square kilometers through the Central Anatolia Region. It’s naturally salty and hosts a number of intriguing salt farms. Sadly, climate change is making itself known here, and recent years have seen dramatic drops in the water level, to the great detriment of the flamingo residents!
Alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba)
Alpine swifts, despite the name, are actually permanent residents of East Africa and Central Africa. However, they spent a lot of their time traveling north or south to avoid the harsh wet seasons in their chosen home. That brings them to Europe, specifically the WHOLE of Turkey, where they can often be spotted throughout the warmer summer months before returning back south again to wait out the winter.
Turkey is just about perfect for these guys. It offers precisely the mix of high-altitude resting grounds and low-altitude breeding grounds that the birds love. As such, you can find them all over, from the foothills of the Caucuses in the far east to the dusty mountains of central Cappadocia and even in the hotter reaches of the Aegean, near the coastal mountains that back the Turquoise Coast.
Alpine swifts are truly elegant birds. They have a wingspan that can top half a meter and a body that usually measures a mere 25cm, no more. A mottled grey and off-white color marks the head and the tail, while a dash of brilliant white goes right across the belly. They tend to live in holes in cliffs or crevices on the outer walls of caves and boast one of the strongest wing flaps of all swift species.
It’s rare to see an alpine swift nesting or on the ground. These guys like to spend their waking hours in the air (studies have shown that swifts of this kind are capable of staying in a flight for more than 200 days in a row!). That’s especially true at their key hunting windows of dusk and dawn, when they alternate between high-altitude dive hunting for insects and longer scouting flights.
Cream-colored courser (Cursorius cursor)
We list the cream-colored courser as one of the most common birds in Turkey because it’s very common to one specific habitat found in this corner of Eurasia: Semi-desert plains and steppes. That means you’ll need to venture to the largely unvisited south of the country to be in with a chance of sighting one, mainly along the arid reaches of the Syrian border, a region that’s sadly not the safest right about now.
If you did happen to head in that direction, you could look forward to seeing a pretty little critter with an ochre-mustard hue covering its entire body. The head displays a clear dash of bright orange that’s flanked by lines of grey, black, and white, all of which meet at a curved beak that mimics a mini scimitar sword. Did we mention that they were pretty little critters?
Sadly, cream-colored coursers aren’t around Turkey ALL the time. They come during the main mating season after spending the winter months in Africa and stay for only a short period. What’s more, populations in Turkey are nowhere near what they are in the main belt of the breeding region for these guys, which extends throughout North Africa and the Saharan Desert all the way to the Canary Islands on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
Northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita)
We list the northern bald ibis with a caveat: This is not one of the most common birds in Turkey by general standards. It’s simply common in these parts in comparison to other countries. That’s because the wonderfully unusual Geronticus eremita is now listed as endangered by the IUCN and actually only has a handful of remaining locations where it continues to thrive.
Turkey – specifically the desert and arid lands around Birecik just west of Gaziantep city – is one of those places. Recent years have seen a major intensification of conservation efforts surrounding the species. Today, fledglings are released on an annual basis to try to boost population numbers and the birds are currently prevented from migrating due to worries about their survival, in part due to the continuing war over the border in nearby Syria.
One of the reasons folks think this bird has done so well in Turkey compared to other places that were once within its range is the special place it has in Muslim folklore. People believed that the northern bald ibis left each year to guide pilgrims on the annual Hajj to Mecca. As such, they left it untouched and unmolested.
The bird is a quirky-looking beast. Standing just under a meter tall on two legs, it can open up to a wingspan of 1.3 meters. They have a dusky black plumage that meets a ruddy, reddish face and an elongated bill that takes a slight downwards twist at the very end.
Masked shrike (Lanius nubicus)
The masked shrike joins the hordes of sun-seeking travelers who head Turkey’s way in the summer months, choosing the glorious beaches and low mountain ridges of the Aegean region as its warm-season nesting grounds. They’ll fly up north from central Africa and the Horn of Africa to breed around April or May and then depart again in August or early September.
Small and bijou, the bird is a charming little member of the long-tailed passerines genus. It weighs in at no more than 25 grams and measures a maximum of 19cm from tail to beak. The male is the prettier of the species, sporting dark and dusky lines along the edges of its wings when folded, framed by a dappled dash of orange on the edges of the underbelly.
You’ll need to keep an ear out for the masked shrike. These tiny fliers can be tough to spot in their natural habitat of thick woodlands and orchards. The call is rather distinctive, though; it’s said to be harsh and heavy, ringing more like a warbler than a classic shrike. Today, the IUCN estimated a global population of just under 700,000, though studies show that the overall number of these guys is declining year on year.
Common birds in Turkey – our conclusion
This guide focuses in on just five of the most common birds in Turkey. We’ve tried to make things interesting by dodging the ubiquitous pigeons and seagulls in favor of species that are found in this corner of Eurasia in relatively high numbers. That might mean that they’re common in Turkey because they aren’t common elsewhere, or that Turkey is one of their known summer breeding grounds. Overall, there’s a good mix to get a-searching for during your holiday, from endangered ibises to elegant shrikes with pretty color patterns.