By Michael C. Jennings

Photos ©2008 by John and Susy Pint unless otherwise credited

Updated September, 2013


Blue Rock Pigeon (Columba livia). Photo by J. M. Garg, courtesy of Wikipedia

Mike Jennings is Coordinator of the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia (ABBA) and Editor of the Phoenix newsletter (see below). He is interested in hearing from anyone with records of birds from the Arabian Peninsula


John and Susy Pint are leaders in the exploration of caves in Arabia (see their website for details of some amazing underground places and adventures) and have reported a number of interesting bird observations during their speleological pursuits. For example, Rock Doves Columba livia have been observed in many limestone caves such as Dahl Abu Jirfan and appropriately named Dove Cave, which are located north of Riyadh as well as in many of the limestone caves of the far north, such as Black Scorpion Cave in the Habikah area. Although the study of lava tubes in Saudi Arabia has scarcely begun, it appears that these, too, are home to Rock Doves. This has proven to be the case in Ghostly Cave in Harrat Kishb, Kahf Al Shuwaymis in Harrat Ithnayn, and the Umm Jirsan System in Harrat Khaybar.


Note: Lava tubes are formed when molten lava runs downhill during an eruption. As the stream becomes solidified on the surface, the flow continues like a drainpipe underground and if the supply suddenly stops, the liquid lava runs out of the bottom leaving an empty tube. Some of these tubes in Arabia have been 3 km long and over 40 m deep and helicopter surveys indicate there may be others up to 50 kilometers long....
John Pint examines rock-dove guano in Umm Jirsan lava tube, 1.5 kms long.

Photo by J. Pint


In certain vertical caves which have rarely or never been visited by animals or humans, Rock Doves Columba livia regularly nest on the floor where they obviously feel safe. Hundreds of Rock Doves were found breeding 100 m below the surface in the pit of Dharb al Najem, near Majma’a in central Saudi Arabia and nesting 75 m below the surface on the floor of the Dahl Abalhol located 206 km east of Riyadh.



Mike Gibson on rappel beneath the entrance to Dahl Abalhol.

Photo by J. Pint


Thousands of Rock-Dove tracks cover the sand near Dahl Abalhol



...In addition, Arabian Rock Doves are the inspiration for a completely new speleological term ‘guanomites’. These are curious dove-dropping stalagmites that grow below roost sites up to a man’s height on the dry, undisturbed floor of desert caves and are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of years in the making.




Mahmoud Al-Shanti of Saudi Geological Survey investigates one of approximately 50 Guanomites in Ghostly Cave, located in Harrat Kishb

Photo by J. Pint





Working with Saudi Geological Survey, the Pints have also explored the longest lava tubes that exist in the Middle East in the harrats of western Arabia, including Umm Jirsan System in the Harrat Khaybar, which turned up Little Swifts (Apus affinis) nesting at least 20 m into the tube as well as several reports of owls, not to mention wolves and hyaenas.

Little Swifts apus affinis. Photo courtesy of Jan Sevcik and naturephoto.


Swifts were found exclusively in the western (Wolf Den) Passage of Umm Jirsan,

presently the longest lava tube system found on the Arabian Peninsula (1.5 km)


This Little Swift nest was found in Umm Jirsan Cave. It is interesting to note that plastic fibres from feed and fertilizer bags (green strands in the picture) now seem to be a major source of materials for nest-building in the desert.



At sunset, Little Swifts dart through the air above the 80-m-wide entrance

to Umm Jirsan Cave. A few hours later, they are replaced by bats.



Spelelogists also report an Ostrich Struthio camelus feather about 100 m from the entrance in Dahl Shawyah cave, which, from the isolation of the hole had probably been there since Ostriches roamed the desert above. They also found Ostrich egg shell fragments near the entrance to Kahf al Shuwaymis lava tube (see note below), 202 km north-east of Medina.



...Caves are very often undisturbed, ancient and special habitats and although there are no records from Arabia of birds penetrating deep into caves, to live or breed in total darkness, like the Oilbird Steatornis caripensis of South America, a number of species are shown on the ABBA database as breeding in caves in Arabia...

Steatornis caripensis in Trinidad by The Lilac Breasted Roller at


...Pallid Swifts Apus pallidus are well known to nest in the roof of the famous Dahl Hit just south of Riyadh. (This was the cave where Abdulaziz Ibn Saud watered his camels and his men rested the night before he captured Riyadh early in the 20th century). Little Swifts Apus affinis have been reported nesting in cave ceilings in Yemen and the Hedjaz. Forbes-Watson’s Swift Apus berliozi nest in small coastal caves in Dhofar and Socotra...


As might be imagined, owls are regular cave goers, the first Hume’s Owl Strix butleri recorded in central Arabia in the 1970s was found roosting inside a 10 m long cave, Barn Owls Tyto alba have been found in a cave on ‘the jebal’ of Bahrain, Spotted Eagle Owls Bubo africanus have been collected from a cave in the Hedjaz and Desert Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus collected from caves in the Eastern Province.

Perhaps the most commonly recorded cave dwelling owl is the Little Owl Athene noctua which has been reported from this habitat in western and central Saudi Arabia and at Dahl al Misfir Cave, Qatar.

The Little Owl is probably the most widespread owl in Arabia occurring almost everywhere from high mountain in the south-west to the Empty Quarter. It is rather scarce in the north probably mainly because of a shortage of suitable nesting sites. It is particularly common on some of the new irrigated farms in central Arabia. It is one of the few owls that can be seen in daylight - it has a habit of sitting out in the late afternoon sun by its hole; it is also a bit slow to go to bed and can often be seen until about mid morning. Home is virtually any hole or crevice. This can be in a tree, a rock, a cave, an old vehicle and once even a disused oil drum lying in the desert. Like most of its kin it hunts at night. It feeds on small mammals such as rodents, a few birds but also takes lots of reptiles such as skinks, geckos, snakes and invertebrates like beetles, scorpions, grasshoppers and solifugids.


This baby Little Owl was found living with its mother in B31 Cave, 200 km NE of Riyadh. Photo courtesy of Mahmoud Al-Shanti.



The ceiling of many caves are also particularly favoured nesting sites of Pale Crag Martin Pytonoprogne obsoleta and Red -rumped Swallow Cecropis duarica...

...On Socotra both the Socotra and Somali Starlings Onychognathus blythii (like Tristram’s Starling O. tristramii on the mainland), have used caves for nesting...

Tristram's Starling. Photo by David Shankbone courtesy of Wikipedia


...The sea-facing caves and fissures of the island are the only known breeding sites for the endemic Jouanin’s Petrel Bulweria fallax. Local people used to harvest them and have reported that they could take 30 young from a single good cave in a night.


This crow, probably a Fan-tailed Raven Corvus rhipidurus, was found on the floor of Umm Jirsan Cave, unable to fly, and was rescued by geologists from Saudi Geological Survey. This is a young bird which had probably fallen out of a nest.





A whole range of raptors find inaccessible caves good places to breed and roost and there are breeding records of Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus, Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus, Bonelli’s Eagle Hieraaetus fasciatus, Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus, as well as four species of falcon, Kestrel Falco tinnunculus, Sooty Falcon F. concolor, Lanner F. biamicus and Barbary F. pelegrinoides.

Photo of Buteo rufinus, courtesy of Wikipedia.



Perhaps the most famous bird cave in Arabia is Tawi Atair  in southern Oman, a vertical sinkhole with water at the bottom that has created (or retained) a special shady habitat which was, for a long time, the only place outside of Yemen that the Yemen Serin Serinus yemenensis could be found, 1000 km from its homeland. The serins seem to spend their lives in or around the hole, nesting in its crevices, finding food and drinking from stalactites.


ABBA stands for Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia. The ABBA Project has, since 1984, been collecting information on the status and distribution of Arabian breeding birds for the purposes of compiling a definitive atlas of the breeding range of these birds. In 1995 An Interim atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia was published and work is now continuing on the final atlas. This is being written with the help of a number of authors with a special knowledge of Arabian birds.

Each year the project publishes a newsletter The Phoenix (ISSN 0268-487X), which is available on subscription (See contact information below).

This article is an expanded version of Birds in Caves by Michael C. Jennings, which appeared in the PHOENIX, Number 24, January 2008

Contact information for Mike Jennings:

Mailing address: Warners Farm House, Warners Drove, Somersham, Cambridgeshire, PE28 3WD, UK.

Tel/Fax: 01487 841733 (Intl 0044 1487 841733)


Email:  NOTE: Please remove the Q before using this email address!

Susy Pint among the Guanomites (Ghostly Cave, Saudi Arabia)