Birds Act as Peacekeepers in Conflict-plagued Israel and Palestine

Israeli zoologist and birder Yossi Leshem helped organize a trans-boundary birding project that benefits both birds and people.

Human conflict is a constant the Middle East, but the region’s birds rarely take notice as long as the disagreements don’t escalate into on-the-ground violence. “From a political point of view, [the region is] a disaster,” says Yossi Leshem, a zoologist at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “But when you’re talking about bird migrations, it’s one of the best hot spots in the world.”

Only in the past two or three decades have birders begun to take notice of the Middle East. Israel, Palestine, and Jordan sit at the junction of three continents, which “for bird migration is heaven,” Leshem says. About 540 bird species can be spotted in Israel alone—a country roughly the size of New Jersey. “The diversity here is much more than our size,” he says.

Leshem, a major player in the international birding community, has worked on everything from reducing bird collisions with airplanes to organizing birding talks and expeditions in Israel for Al Gore, Jimmy Carter, and the president and board of the National Audubon Society. Birds, Leshem says, can even help with the region’s political problems, at least in certain instances. “I believe birds are a common ground,” he says. “There’s no conflict about them.”                 

In 1995 Leshem and a colleague ran into each other at a meeting in Bethlehem and struck upon the idea of birdwatching as a means of promoting regional cooperation. Since birds know no boundaries, they reasoned, they might hold promise for uniting people who shared love of nature. Recruiting birding colleagues from Palestine and Jordan, they thought, would also help create a fuller picture of bird activity in the region. “The big vision of this cooperation is, first of all, basic science,” Leshem says.

Each autumn and spring, half a billion birds representing about 280 species pass over the cluster of countries known as the Levant—which includes Israel, Jordan, and Palestine—during their seasonal migration between northern Europe and parts Eurasia to eastern and southern Africa. Some birds travel as far as from Sweden to South Africa. Regardless of their migrations’ endpoints, all of the species encounter dangers along their way. In the Mediterranean, France, and Spain, local hunters pick off migrating birds. Larger birds, including storks, pelicans, and raptors, fall victim to electrocution. Storms blow migrants off course and into the sea, where they drown; other birds fall victim to poisoning in a farmer’s field. Finally, increased development in the region also means fewer patches of habitat where exhausted migrants can take shelter. “Birds like pelicans need to eat at least once every five days, but most fish are gone because people dry out the wetlands,” Leshem says. “These are just a few of the many problems.”

By identifying exactly where those birds go each year—and where they are most likely to encounter danger—managers can design better ways to protect them. The more people involved in answering these questions, the better the chances of designing effective conservation strategies. This requires cooperation across borders—the final point of Leshem and his colleague’s vision. “It’s people to people, getting hundreds of farmers, scientists, and educators to work together.” 

As a starting point for the project, Leshem reached out to a colleague at the Max Planck Institute in Germany. Since the institute manages long-term bird-tracking programs and “Germans appreciate Israel because of history,” Leshem thought his joint proposal would have a good chance of gaining support. His hunch was correct: The German government offered funding to the Max Planck Institute to outfit 120 German white storks with satellite transmitters so they could be tracked as they made their way south into the Middle East and Africa.

Back in Israel, Tel Aviv University and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel joined the project. Leshem and his colleagues trained Palestinians and Jordanians to band birds and brought together teachers, researchers, and conservationiststo define the project’s mission: to improve knowledge of birds in the region, to promote environmental conservation, and to facilitate regional cooperation.

Children, they decided, were an important factor in meeting this third goal. The Israeli Ministry of Education set up a website for teachers and students; Palestine and Jordan quickly followed with their own websites. Eventually, with additional help from the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Middle East Regional Cooperation Program, they recruited students, aged 10 to 13, from Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories. First the students learned about migration and birds in the Middle East in a 20-hour online curriculum. They also exchanged emails with one another and with scientists to share information and ask questions. “They asked the same questions you’re asking me—why do birds migrate, how do they navigate, what’s special about the Middle East,” Leshem says. 

Leshem and his colleagues were determined to move beyond the computers and get the students together. “The problem is that whenever you try to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, you have to get permission—there are a lot of headaches,” he says. “Many times we had to stop.” But the plan did work several times. After completing the online portion of the program, buses of Jewish Israelis and Muslim Palestinians and Jordanian students met in the field to observe the birds firsthand. The young birders were challenged to correctly identify at least 10 species, and to observe the birds’ behavior over the course of one or two days. The kids collaborated on their efforts and shared meals. Normally, such students would never have the chance to meet. “This was a special event, getting them together to learn with each other,” Leshem says. “Otherwise, they don’t come together.”

Several times—during the Second Intifada, in 2000, for example—the project’s success was threatened when regional violence broke out. During the 2006 conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Islamic militant group Hezbollah, rockets rained down on the Hula Valley, a birding hot spot. But usually the conflict was confined to politics rather than out-and-out violence. Oftentimes, the students could no longer come together and the coordinators had to convene in Turkey, Cyprus, or Europe. Yet they persevered by tracking the birds online and waiting out the conflict in order to meet regionally once again when things settled down. “Birds have nothing to do with the violence, they just go on their way,” Leshem says. “If there’s not war, it’s not a problem.”

The results of the crane migration study, which are accessible online,provided the first long-term data from the Middle East on soaring-bird migration. The storks, they found, travel more than 11,000 kilometers (about 6,800 miles), from a small town near Berlin to a spot near Cape Town, South Africa. Over the years they were observed, the birds always took the same migration route. 

Based on the project’s success, the European Union got involved by developing three field stations: one each in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. BirdLife International oversaw activities at those new centers, including research on migrating birds, conservation undertakings to protect the birds’ habitat, and community outreach. Other nonprofits in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East provided additional funding and logistical support.

In 2008, in keeping with their goal of promoting environmental sustainability, the coordinators began collaborating with farmers, installing nest boxes for barn owls and kestrels in an effort to encourage the raptors to act as biological controllers in lieu of pesticides. Israeli farmers joined their Palestinian counterparts to share knowledge and techniques about supporting the birds. “For Muslims, the owl is an omen bringing bad luck, but we succeeded in convincing them it brings good luck,” Leshem says. Today hundreds of farmers throughout in Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Territories maintain some 3,000 nest boxes—up from fewer than 1,000 in 2007. ”All farmers with nesting boxes stopped using pesticides—totally stopped,” Leshem says. “Each pair of owls feeds on 2,000 to 6,000 mice per year.”

While the region continues to struggle politically, the birding projects prove the exception to the rule, having continued for nearly 20 years and still going strong. (Unfortunately for the students, they are not currently meeting due to regional tension.) Ospreys are next on the list for the trans-boundary tracking project, and farmers have started using kestrels in addition to barn owls to act as biological control agents. “Birds are something in common that is connected to the soul of many people,” Leshem said. “Everyone wants to fly.”