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3 February 2023

Omid the Lonely Love Bird

After losing his partner, Arzu, in 2008, Omid has flown the 5000km migration alone. Read the background story on the last Siberian crane to fly the Western Route.

Omid the Lonely Love Bird

Image: Mehr news

Other than comic-strip characters like Donald Duck and Tweety, it’s rare for a bird to become an international superstar. However, one individual feathered friend with a global following is a Siberian Crane known as Omid. Videos filmed around 20 years ago show him and his beloved, a crane called Arzu (‘dream’), performing a series of winning dances – a hopping head-tuck manoeuvre, a preening jump and a curious rump-waggle. But Omid is still going strong, and his fame has only increased since Arzu’s sad demise in 2008. This is mainly because Omid, whose name means ‘hope,’ is now the very last Siberian Crane to follow the ‘Western’ migration route.

Once upon a time, hundreds of cranes would over-winter in wetlands set back from Iran’s Caspian coast in Mazandaran Province, then fly back to traditional breeding areas around Uvat in the Tyumen region of Western Siberia, arriving by early May.

However, the majestic red-headed birds were hunted for both sport and food, while the wetland habitats they rely upon have been suffering ongoing reduction for decades. By 2002 only four birds were counted on the route, and for a couple of years, it was thought that the lineage had been entirely extirpated. Then Omid reappeared. Between 1991 and 2013, there were attempts to introduce a new group of cranes in the Uvat tundra, hoping they could be trained to follow Omid’s lead and re-learn the Western migration route. However, the efforts failed, as did an experiment releasing captive-bred Siberian Cranes at the Iranian wintering lakes: these followed other cranes on a different route ignoring Omid’s lead.

So now, as he has done for nearly two decades, Omid valiantly flies alone on the same 5000km route as though in romantic homage to his long-departed partner – yes, Siberian Cranes tend to be monogamous. These days the first sighting of his arrival at the Azbaran lakes each November is likely to make local news reports in Iran. And as in 2009 and 2015, it’s even bigger news when he fails to show up.

The exact route of the Western group’s migration was a mystery until 1996 when one bird was satellite tracked and discovered to follow the western coast of the Caspian with rest stops on the Volga Delta. Omid himself comes this way, but for the last few years, he has been discovered to take another breather, if only a day or two of rest, in Azerbaijan’s Shirvan National Park. That’s big news for international twitchers who might struggle to get visas for Russia and Iran. So, in recent years, late February and late-October have seen growing pilgrimages of bird watchers heading to Shirvan National Park hoping to spot the lonely love bird in the park’s shallow waters. Or waiting with bated breath for a 2-minute glimpse as he flies up the Caspian ‘flyway.’ In 2023 most were disappointed, Omid having given the slip by delaying his stopover, but all this simply adds to his almost mythological status.