It’s hard for the hard-hearted among us to deny that birds are beautiful in flight. The beauty of their flight brings joy in its wake. And sometimes peace comes with it.
To understand how this works in Israel, start by imagining a New England village. It’s autumn, the leaves are in their prime, there’s a covered bridge over the river, there’s a village green, there’s an old stable on the meadow.
There are many partially hidden places in the old barn, and in one of those corners is an owl’s nest.
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The owls that live in that nest pick off the rodents that would otherwise eat the produce. So less pesticides, more grain, more owls, less mice. It’s a fairly well-balanced system.
Today, however, even New England has fewer log cabins.
Now let’s bring the story to Israel; it’s not a place we associate with old wooden barns, and for good reason. Its agricultural industry is newer, the climate is different, and for various reasons barns, like most barns built now, are more functional, less scenic, and less attractive to owls.
As in not applying at all.
So to bring this story into this century and connect it to Israel, we go to Israel’s Hula Valley, a lake surrounded by swamps in northern Israel. It was a prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and therefore malaria. By the 1950s, the lake had dried up, with a post-war bleak misunderstanding that directly applied science could straighten things out and an equally dejected disregard for the possibility of unintended consequences.
There were fewer mosquitoes, which was a very good thing. But the complex natural habitat that flourished there, the web of interdependencies that provided the land and the people living near it with the necessary natural resources, dried up with the lake.
In the 1990s, Israelis began trying to rebalance competing needs, bring back some of the species that once lived there, and restore some of the beauty. And there are some real successes there.
The country is a vital resting place for migratory birds, according to the Israel Conservation Society, whose leaders hosted a discussion last week at Kaplen JCC in the Palisades in Tenafly. Twice a year, about 500 million birds—that’s 500,000,000, a lot of birds—fly over Israel from Europe and Asia on their way to Africa; one time they go south and the next time they go back north again. Heading south, the Hula Valley is the last stop before the vast wastes of the Sahara desert; on their way back again, the valley is the first place to offer them food and rest.
When the Hula Valley dried up, rodents still managed to survive there; farmers released pesticides to kill them. That pesticide also killed many birds.
What to do?
Yossi Leshem, who is among the speakers at the JCC, is the former head of the SPNI. He is a remarkably able and reliable ornithologist; he is, among other things, a senior researcher in the department of zoology at Tel Aviv University and the founder and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, a joint project of the university and SPNI.
In the 1980s, he was thinking about how to solve the problem of pesticides and birds. “In Malaysia, they were cutting down hundreds of thousands of hectares of rainforest to plant olive trees, and all of a sudden there were lots of rats on the trees.” Rats are no better for olive trees than pesticides are for birds, it turns out the Malaysians have a great idea. “They built nests for the owls, and that reduced the number of rats,” said Dr. Carcass.
He realized that owls could work in Israel, too, if he could find a way to provide them with a nest.
“We started in 1983 in the Bet She’an Valley,” also in northern Israel, on the Jordan River, said Dr. Carcass. “At first we thought we might have to bring a pair of owls – we had a lot at the zoo anyway – but we learned very quickly that we didn’t have to.”
Owls eat 2,000 to 6,000 rodents a year, said Jay Shofet, SPNI’s director of partnerships and development; Mr. Shofet also spoke at KIK.
If people provided nesting boxes, owls appeared. “We now have 5,000 boxes,” said Dr. Leshem. Owls have no problem finding enough food. “Farmers with boxes stopped using pesticides,” he said.
“The boxes cover more than 350,000 acres,” Mr. Shofet said.
They stand in the fields like upside-down scarecrows; instead of scaring birds away from crops, they accommodate birds that prey on crop-destroying rodents, not only feeding themselves well, but also helping other birds stay safe.
He added that it was fairly easy for the SPNI to find the wooden boxes. “The Israeli army donated thousands of wooden ammunition boxes. Every soldier knows this. We just put them on the posts.”
According to Dr. Leshem, owls have a perfect sense of the presence of their prey. In the years when rodents flourish, owls have more young. “They can lay up to 14 chicks, even a second, sometimes even a third instar.” Less hunting results in fewer baby birds. “Sometimes they only have one or two eggs, and some have none.”
What rodents do they eat? Mice, of course. Dr. Leshem said that there are no squirrels in Israel and rats do not eat the crops. Owls also eat nutria and—wait for it! – gerbils. You know, kids get lazy pets when their parents won’t let them have a cat or a dog.
(Owls don’t do so well in cities. Dr. Lesham said researchers have tried setting up boxes in urban areas, hoping the birds would hunt mice and rats, but they didn’t.)
There’s more to this story than farmers being able to use less pesticides, not only saving the lives of many birds, but also making habitats healthier for all species, including humans. It also led to cross-border partnerships.
In 2002, a group of retired Israeli and Jordanian generals toured the battlefields; it was about the movement from war to peace. “I told them I wanted to show them the boxes, but they said, ‘No!’ No. They are generals. They are not interested in wildlife.” They gave me an hour to show them a box.”
This worked. They were interested.
One of those generals was Mansour Abu Rashid, who fought for Jordan and was “wounded in the Six Day War” and was also captured by Israeli soldiers but managed to escape. He was also injured in 1973,” said Dr. Leshem.
“And then he said that he spent 35 years fighting against the Israelis, but for the last 28 years he was engaged in peace.”
General Mansoor, as Dr. Leshem affectionately calls him, is also a lawyer and a former adviser to King Hussein of Jordan; He was there when Israel and Jordan signed the peace treaty in 1994. He was also on the JCC, SPNI panel.
He is now the founder and head of the Amman Center for Peace and Development, and he and Dr. Leshem works together to protect nature and promote peace in their countries. They also became “very close friends,” Dr. Leshem said. “He comes to my house and I go to his house. We now see working together as an activity not only related to ecology, but also between people.
When Dr. Leshem first spoke to Mr. Abu Rashid about the owls, the general said, “Yossi, we can’t do this. Owls bring us luck. To the Muslims.’ But I said that this time the owls will bring success to all of us.”
Mr Shofet says the nesting owl program has spread from Israel and Jordan to Cyprus, Greece, Morocco, Dubai and Switzerland, and he believes more countries will adopt it.
And then there’s the bigger project.
At a JCC panel moderated by Leon Sokol of Tenafly, co-chair of the American Friends of the Nature Conservancy in Israel, which sponsored the trip, the group talked about how it is working to make fish farms more natural. environments. Decades ago, kibbutzim turned wetlands into fish farms; swamps brought disease, and farmed fish brought income. But as the world changed, farmed fish became less financially profitable and fish farms declined.
The SPNI turned one in Kfar Ruppin into a noisy place for birds and other creatures; he is working on a second further south at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael.
This is not news; the project is going well. The new, pristine wetlands that replaced the fish farms brought large numbers of birds.
The news is political. Although not yet official, it appears that Jordan will work with Israel to restore the wetlands, so the wetlands facing each other along the Jordan River can attract birds and terrestrial wildlife together. As if these species understand, care, or are limited in any way by political boundaries. And we humans can learn from them.
To learn more about SPNI, visit naturalisrael.org.