Palestinian and an Israeli-Arab farmer - Hagai Aharon - August 2011
A Palestinian and an Israeli-Arab farmer holding a barn owl during a special seminar organized by the Israel Ornithology Center. Photo by Hagai Aharon
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A popular superstition holding that owls are bad luck caused Arab farmers to refuse for quite some time to put up nesting boxes for the birds, even though they are widely used by Jewish farmers as a form of biological pest control.

But this attitude has begun to change of late, thanks to the efforts of an ornithologist from the Lower Galilee village of Iksal.

Samah Darawshe, of the Israel Ornithology Center, has managed to persuade Arab farmers in the Lower Galilee to put up dozens of nesting boxes over the last year, and dozens more are slated to go up soon. The results of the effort will be presented in two weeks at a Tel Aviv conference on regional economic cooperation sponsored by the Regional Development Ministry, which put up the money for the nesting boxes.

To date, Jewish farmers have put up some 2,700 nesting boxes, as owls eat a large number of agricultural pests. As such, they constitute an alternative to pesticides. The ornithology center, run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, also managed to persuade Jordanian farmers to put up nesting boxes.

To convince Israeli Arab farmers to overcome their fears, Darawshe launched a major informational campaign. "We held special seminars for people in the villages," he related.

"I spoke with students at the schools, and also with imams. I even did a search of religious sources and found that the Prophet Mohammed rejected superstitions against animals, including owls. And there were imams who agreed to speak about the importance of using owls in their Friday sermons."

One of the first farmers to agree to try out the owls was Salah Omari of Sandala. Two years ago, he put up two nest boxes, one of which produced "the first owl nest in an Arab community," Darawshe said.

Later, Darawshe persuaded the Mekorot Water Company to put up 52 nesting boxes along the route of the National Water Carrier in the Beit Netofa Valley, five of which attracted nesters ("that's considered a success," he explained ). This gradually reconciled local Arab farmers to the idea.

His next success was getting 30 boxes put up in Kafr Kana, west of Beit Netofa. No nests had been built yet, but owls had begun to check out the boxes, Darawshe said.

Residents of Bueina-Nujeidat also recently agreed to accept nesting boxes, and Darawshe now plans to work on other villages in the area.