It’s for the birds
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It’s for the birds

Leaders of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel talk about their work

It’s difficult for the hardest hearted among us to deny that birds are gorgeous when they soar. The beauty of their flight brings joy in its wake. And sometimes peace comes with it too.

To understand how this has worked in Israel, start by imagining an idyllic New England village. It’s autumn, the leaves are at their most glorious, there’s a covered bridge over a stream, there’s a village green, and there’s an old barn in a meadow.

There are many partially hidden places in the old barn, and there’s an owls’ nest in one of those nooks.

Migrating white storks soar over Israel; their flight is photographed from a motorized glider. (Thomas Krumenacker)

The barn owls living in that nest pick off the rodents that otherwise would eat the crops. So less pesticide, more grain, more owls, fewer mice. It’s a pretty well-balanced system.

But today there are fewer wooden barns, even in New England.

Now let’s bring the story over to Israel; it’s not a place that we associate with old wooden barns, and for good reason. Its agricultural industry is newer, the climate is different, and for a variety of reasons, the barns, like most barns built now, are more functional, less picturesque, and less appealing to owls.

As in not appealing at all.

Hungry barn owls wait impatiently for their mother. They’re nesting in one of the boxes adapted from ammunition crates. (Amir Ezer)

So, to bring this story to this century, and to connect it to Israel, we go to Israel’s Hula Valley, which was a lake, surrounded by marshlands, in northern Israel. It was a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes, and therefore for malaria. In the 1950s, with the blithe postwar misunderstanding that straightforwardly applied science can fix everything straightforwardly, and with the equally blithe disregard for the likelihood of unintended consequences, the lake was drained.

There were fewer mosquitoes, and that was a very good thing. But the complex natural habitat that had flourished there, the web of interdependencies that provided the land and the people living near it with the natural resources they needed, dried up along with the lake.

In the 1990s, Israelis began to try to rebalance competing needs, to bring back some of the species that once lived there, and to restore some of the beauty. And it’s had some real successes there.

General Mansour Abu Rashid of Jordan, left, and Dr. Yossi Leshem of Israel present the barn owl project to the president of Switzerland and the 150 ambassadors stationed there. (Prof. Alex Roulin)

According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel — whose leaders hosted a discussion at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly last week — the country is a vital resting place for migrating birds. Twice a year, about 500 million birds — that’s 500,000,000, which is a lot of birds — fly across Israel from Europe and Asia, on their way to Africa; once they go south, and the next time they go back north again. On their way south, the Hula Valley is their last stop before the desolate enormous wastes of the Sahara; on the way back up again, the valley is the first place that offers them food and rest.

When the Hula Valley was dried up, rodents still managed to survive there; farmers put out pesticides to kill them. That pesticide also killed large numbers of birds.

What to do?

Three pelicans take off for South Sudan. (Aharon Shimshon)

Yossi Leshem, who was among the speakers at the JCC, is a former head of the SPNI. He’s a formidably accomplished and credentialed ornithologist; he is, among other things, a senior researcher in the zoology department at Tel Aviv University and the founder and director of the university’s and the SPNI’s joint project, the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration.

He thought about how to solve the problem of pesticides and birds in the 1980s. “In Malaysia, they were cutting down hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forests to plant olive trees, and suddenly they started getting huge numbers of rats climbing onto the trees.” Rats aren’t much better for olive trees than pesticides are for birds, it turns out, but the Malaysians had a great idea. “They put up nesting boxes for owls, and that reduced the number of rats,” Dr. Leshem said.

He realized that owls could work in Israel too, if he could find a way of providing them with nests.

“We started in the Beit She’an Valley,” also in northern Israel, on the Jordan River, “in 1983,” Dr. Leshem said. “At the beginning we thought that maybe we’d have to bring in pairs of barn owls — we had too many at the zoo anyway — but very fast we learned that we don’t have to bring them.”

A hoopoe — Israel’s national bird — is feeding her chicks. (Thomas Krumanrcker)

Barn owls eat between 2,000 and 6,000 rodents a year, Jay Shofet, SPNI’s director of partnerships and development, said; Mr. Shofet also spoke at the JCC.

If people supplied nesting boxes, the owls showed up. “Now we have 5,000 boxes,” Dr. Leshem said. And there’s no problem with the owls finding enough to eat. “The farmers who have boxes stopped using pesticides,” he said.

“The boxes cover more than 350,000 acres,” Mr. Shofet added.

A common kingfisher is on the hunt. (Shmulik Angel)

They stand in the fields like reverse scarecrows; instead of scaring the birds away from the crops, they house the birds that prey on the rodents that demolish the crops, not only keeping themselves well-fed but helping other birds stay safe.

It’s been fairly easy for the SPNI to find wooden boxes, he added. “The Israeli army donated thousands of wooden ammunition boxes. Every soldier knows about this. We just put them on poles.”

The owls seem to have a sophisticated sense of the availability of their prey, Dr. Leshem said. In years when rodents flourish, the owls have more fledglings. “They can get up to 14 chicks, and maybe even a second and sometimes even a third round” of egg-laying. Less prey results in fewer baby birds. “Sometimes they have just one or two eggs, and some years some have none at all.”

What rodents do they eat? Mice, of course. There are no squirrels in Israel, Dr. Leshem said, and rats don’t eat the crops. The owls also eat nutria, and — wait for it! — gerbils. You know, the sluggish pets kids have when their parents won’t let them have a cat or a dog.

On October 26, 1994, Jordan and Israel signed a peace treaty, and General Mansour Abu Rashid was there; he’s in the front row, at the left. Next to him, from left: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, U.S. President Bill Clinton, and Jordanian Prime Minister Abdelsalam al-Majali. In the back, from left: Israeli Brig. Gen. (Res.) Baruch Spiegel, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Israeli President Ezer Weizman, and Jordan’s King Hussein.

(The owls don’t work as well in cities, though. Dr. Leshem said that researchers have tried to set up boxes in urban areas, hoping that the birds would prey on mice and rats, but they didn’t.)

There is more to this story than the way farmers were able to use less pesticides, not only saving many birds’ lives but making the habitat healthier for all species, including people. It also led to cross-border partnerships.

In 2002, a group of Israeli and Jordanian retired generals toured battlefields; it was about the movement from war to peace. “I said I wanted to show them the boxes, but they said ‘No! No. They are generals. They are not interested in wildlife.’ They gave me one hour to show them a box.”

Seven barn owl chicks are in a nesting box; the box is one out of the 5,000 scattered throughout Israel. (Amir Ezer)

It worked. They were interested.

One of those generals was Mansour Abu Rashid, who “was wounded in the Six-Day War” — fighting for Jordan — “and also was captured by Israeli soldiers, but managed to run away. He also was injured in 1973,” Dr. Leshem said.

“And then he said that he had spent 35 years fighting the Israelis, but for the last 28 years he’s been involved in peace.”

General Mansour, as Dr. Leshem calls him affectionately, is also a lawyer, and a former advisor to Jordan’s King Hussein; he was there when Israel and Jordan signed their peace treaty in 1994. He also was at the JCC, at the SPNI panel.

This group of white storks resting and refueling in Israel is among the 600,000 storks that fly over Israel twice a year. That’s 85% of the world’s white storks. (Thomas Krumenacker)

Now, he’s the founder and head of the Amman Center for Peace and Development, and he and Dr. Leshem work together to preserve nature and promote peace in their countries. They’ve also become “very close friends,” Dr. Leshem said. “He comes to my house, and I go to his house. We see working together now as not about environmentalism but also about people-to-people activity.”

When he first talked about owls with Mr. Abu Rashid, Dr. Leshem said, the general said, “‘Yossi, we can’t do this. Owls bring back luck to us. To Muslims.’ But I said that this time, the owls would bring all of us good luck.”

The nesting barn owl program has spread from Israel and Jordan to Cyprus, Greece, Morocco, Dubai, and Switzerland, Mr. Shofet said, and he thinks that still more countries are likely to adopt it as well.

This common swift is in flight; in one-thousandth of a second it will sip water — while continuing to fly. (Shmulik Angel)

And then there’s the larger project.

Rewilding.

At the JCC panel, the group — moderated by Leon Sokol of Tenafly, the co-chair of the American Friends of the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel, which sponsored the visit — talked about how it works to convert fish farms into more natural environments. Decades ago, kibbutzim turned wetlands into fish farms; the wetlands brought disease, and farmed fish brought income. But as the world has changed, farmed fish has become less financially rewarding, and the fish farms decay.

The SPNI has turned one, at Kfar Ruppin, into a bustling destination for birds and other wildlife; it’s working on a second one, farther south, at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.

That’s not news; the project has been going along well. It’s brought huge numbers of birds to the new, clean wetlands that have replaced the fish farms.

The news is political. Although it’s not entirely official yet, it seems that Jordan will work with Israel on rewilding wetlands, so the wetlands that face each other across the Jordan River can attract birds and terrestrial wildlife together. It’s not as if those species understand, care about, or are in any way bounded by political borders. And we humans can learn from them.

To learn more about SPNI, go to natureisrael.org.

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