Israeli Ornithologist Uses Birds to Bring Nations Together

Hashem blessed them, saying, “Be fertile and increase, fill the waters in the seas, and let the birds increase on the earth.” Genesis 1:22 (The Israel Bible™)

Prof. Yossi Leshem is strictly for the birds – literally! The Tel Aviv University ornithologist has been involved in research, education and the protection of birds for more than 40 years.

When migrating birds occasionally crashed into Israel Air Force jets, causing broken windows or getting stuck in engines and even causing fatal crashes, Leshem devised the technique of using engine-less gliders to follow flocks and warning the jets to stay away. Eventually, this developed into a radar project that replaced the gliders.

When voles ate alfalfa and other agricultural crops growing in the rich soil in northern Israel, Leshem replaced pesticides – which posed health dangers – with barn owls and kestrels (small birds of prey of the genus Falco, known for their habit of hovering while hunting) as biological pest control agents to eat the small rodents. Pesticides stick to plants and can poison wildlife that feed on them either directly or indirectly (for instance, alfalfa that has been sprayed and then fed to cattle might contaminate the milk that we drink).

The father of five and grandfather of six, who lives south of Jerusalem, Leshem persuaded the modern-Orthodox Kibbutz Sde Eliahu located in the Bet She’an valley near the border with Jordan to build wooden nesting boxes as homes for the birds that eat the voles.

Fortunately, as Leshem’s experiment clearly proved successful, it was joined by farmers, government officials, public representatives and university researchers. Leshem aimed at raising the number of nest boxes for birds in the agricultural fields in seven regions in Israel, and within three years to double their number – from 730 nest boxes (already active in the area in 2007) to 1,500. Each region appointed a coordinator to work with the farmers; short films and explanatory brochures were distributed; study days were held for hundreds of farmers; and the subject was discussed in the press. A website was created (at www.birds.org.il), to learn about the subject first hand.

Barn owls, with cute, heart-shaped faces, and kestrels don’t need to worry at all about the man-made borders; they fly wherever they want. If there is food somewhere that is suitable for them – mainly various species of mice – that is where they fly silently, without raising the rodents’ suspicion.

Prof. Yossi Leshem sits in his office at Tel Aviv University. (Credit: Tel Aviv University)

At the dawn of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent in the Eastern Mediterranean, man began to grow grains such as wheat and barley. They wiped out the natural forests, replacing them with agricultural crops that attracted thousands of rodents to the fields. The rodents caused a lot of damage to agriculture and spread diseases. In the wake of the rodents came the barn owls, which sleep during the day and are predators at night. They began to nest in water holes, barns and attics, and formed a bond with human habitats.

Since the barn owls’ eyes are at the front of the face, they are thought to be very intelligent, like humans, but this is a myth. Yet they are smart enough to go after rodents for their dinner.

Leshem notes that according to Jewish tradition, as well as in Roman folklore, the owl represents black magic and evil, and the sight of an owl in flight was considered a sign of impending destruction and ruin. Some Muslims believe that the barn owl represents ghosts seeking revenge, while some Bedouin claim that if an owl nears their tent and calls out, someone in the family might be facing death.

Of course, although these myths have no scientific basis, they may come from the fact that people are scared in the dark when they can’t see where they are going.

As for kestrels, they may hunt from an observation point on a treetop or the roof of a nest box in the field. When they catch their prey, the bird stuns it with a strong blow of the beak to the head and chokes them using the long, strong talons on their legs. Kestrels don’t build their own nests but look for a ready-made one – cracks in rocks and hollow tree trunks serve as natural nesting sites, as well as nests abandoned by other birds (mostly crows), and even attics and empty planters.

Kestrels like to nest year after year in the same nest, unless it was disturbed the previous year. The female lays three to seven eggs at two-day intervals, according to the availability of food in the area. One pair of Kestrels tending to their nestlings preys on up to 20 rodents a day. A pair of barn owls can eat between 2,000 and 6,000 small rodents annually.

Leshem’s project expanded over the years, so that today, there are thousands of nesting boxes in Israel and hundreds more in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and elsewhere. The bird house idea became a national project, and as the rodents knew no borders, Leshem taught Jordanians on the other side to do the same. This project promoted friendly ties with Jordanian farmers. Although white doves are the symbol of peace, maybe barn owls and kestrels can be as well.

The Israeli ornithologist is also promoting peace using his contacts with another “species” that flies very high – a US astronaut. He met Dr. Richard (Ricky) Arnold II – who is currently airborne at the International Space Station – last year.

Arnold visited Israel for an event in memory of Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut and a fighter pilot, who was on NASA’s ill-fated Columbia space mission that crashed in February 2003 along with six other crew members. Every year, NASA sends an American astronaut to Israel to honor Ramon. Last year, it was Arnold, who – Leshem learned – is an enthusiastic bird enthusiast. He took him to see migrating birds feasting at the Hula Valley, and Arnold was captivated by the sight.

The 54-year-old Arnold, who was raised in Bowie, Maryland, took a liking to Leshem and agreed come to Israel again in April 2019, as a guest of the Hoopoe Foundation. (The hoopoe is Israel’s national bird). He will be a keynote speaker at “The Way of a Vulture in the Sky” conference and be part of the flyover of nine Israeli, Jordanian and British planes from Eilat north to the Lebanese border with migrating birds. This is meant to convey a message of peace among nations and religions.

Arnold has spent more than 200 days in space as a NASA astronaut and even participated in space walks outside the space station. The US astronaut began working at the US Naval Academy in 1987 as an oceanographic technician. Upon completing his teacher certification program, he accepted a position as a science teacher at John Hanson Middle School in Waldorf, Maryland. In 1993, Arnold joined the faculty at the Casablanca American School in Casablanca, Morocco, teaching biology and marine environmental science.

In 1996, he and his family moved to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he was employed as a middle and high school science teacher at the American International School. Later, he moved to Indonesia and to Romania to teach math and science at a high school.

His career veered quite a bit in 2004, when he was chosen as a mission specialist-educator by NASA, followed two years later by completion of an astronaut candidate training course that included scientific and technical briefings, intensive instruction in Shuttle and International Space Station systems, physiological training and water and wilderness survival training. Upon completion of his training, He worked on various technical assignments until he was assigned to the STS-119 spaceflight.

The space station circles the Earth every 90 minutes, floating in space about 400 km above it. With its solar panels the size of a football field, the space station is the largest artificial structure in space. Six astronauts currently live in the station: three American astronauts from NASA (including Arnold), two cosmonauts from Russia and one German astronaut.

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