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The battle between the rodents, which ornithology experts call "mass-production machines," and the owls, the "hunting machines," is about to begin. If all goes as planned, the rodents that destroy Israel's alfalfa fields can start shaking in their boots, the experts say. The opening salvo was fired last Thursday at a conference at Kibbutz Kfar Blum, under the banner "Owls and Falcons as Biological Pest Controllers in Agriculture."

No fewer than 200 farmers registered for the conference, and the organizers had no choice last week but to turn away additional applicants with the promise of another seminar in the future.

"Up until 20 years ago, people viewed us as dreamers," says Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of the International Center for the study of Bird Migration at Latrun, which is operated by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and Tel Aviv University. "Pest control using owls and falcons has become a national project, sponsored by the agriculture and environmental protection ministries."

The rodents do the most damage to alfalfa fields, so much so that Leshem says some fields are literally squealing with rodents. The farmers' desire to rid themselves of this plague brings many of them to use poison, which contaminates the food chain - particularly harming vultures. Traces of poison remain on the alfalfa that is later supplied to dairy farms, and even contaminate the ground water, the soil and the vegetation.

"All this poison has harmed us and the birds of prey," says Leshem.

In addition, poisons are very expensive.

Under the biological rodent control project, the number of owl nesting boxes in Israel will triple over the next three years - from the current 720 to around 2,500.

"Being a rodent in the Beit She'an valley is a nightmare," says Leshem. "[The valley] has become owl territory. There are 160 pairs of owls there already," continues Leshem, "and each eats about 2,000 rodents a year. The owls are hunting machines that halt the spread of rodents in the fields. Now our goal is to go national and let the owls hunt in all the agricultural areas."

Common falcons also will be integrated into this pest control project.

The use of owls for rodent control got off to a slow start. In 1982, a number of nesting boxes were set up in the Hula Valley and several pairs of owls were brought in, but the First Lebanon War and the continued use of poisons - in violation of farmers' promises - brought that experiment to its unsuccessful conclusion. The nesting boxes were relocated to Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She'an valley, and populated with pairs of owls brought from the zoological park at Tel Aviv University. They, too, disappeared, and researchers feared that experiment had failed, too.

Bird watchers soon discovered, however, that the empty boxes had been reoccupied by local owls. It turned out that there was no need to acclimate owls raised in captivity; empty nesting boxes simply could be put out, and local owls would move in. Owls currently live in about half the boxes.

"People found it hard to believe in this method," recalls bird-watcher and farmer Shaul Aviel, who headed the project in Sde Eliyahu and is in touch with the other farmers participating in the project. "It took about 10 years until I realized I had a system," he says.

"Very slowly other farmers heard about the owls," says Dan Alon, director of the SPNI's Israel Ornithological Center, "but the method took time to establish itself. Many farmers gave up. They need to be taught when to set up the boxes, how to take care of them and how to oust squatters. Now there will be an annual work plan, aimed at uniting the farmers interested in joining us."