From Carrier Pigeons to Text-messaging Pelicans

Israeli researchers have equipped migrating birds with SIM cards in a novel attempt to track their paths .

Many Israelis rarely leave home without a cellphone. Starting this month several pelicans headed abroad will also be equipped with SIM cards in an unusual attempt to track the movements of the migrating birds.

The pelicans, which are making their way to Africa, will start transmitting SMS messages from devices attached to their bodies, in a joint project of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Small World telecommunications company, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.

One of the goals of the project is to monitor the birds, some of which arrive in Israel malnourished, and determine how to meet their nutritional needs without harming the livelihood of commercial fish breeders.

In recent weeks, members of the science division of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority have been trapping pelicans that pass through Israel from Europe on their way to Africa in autumn, marking numbers on their wings to enable them to be identified from a distance and attaching various monitoring devices to their bodies, including satellite transmitters. For the first time, some of the pelicans are also going to be tracked through a SIM card that will send text messages containing accurate data on the birds' locations. "This card can transmit messages from 200 countries," says Ronnie Marcus, an owner of the Small World Telecommunications company, which is supplying the cards. "Among other things, it helps overcome the communication difficulties that exist in some African countries."

Ten pelicans bearing the SIM card will be sent to Africa, as part of the study being conducted by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, together with the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior at the Hebrew University, led by Professor Ran Nathan.

There is a need to accurately track the pelicans because of the food shortages they face, notes Ohad Hatzofe, the avian ecologist for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which has helped fund the project through the Hoopoe Foundation. In the past the birds fed off fish found in natural water sources, such as the Lake of Antioch in southern Turkey and Lake Hula in northern Israel. But after these water sources dried up, the fishponds in Israel became one of the most important food sources for pelicans on their long journey south to Africa, says Hatzofe.

In order to prevent the pelicans from poaching fish from these commercial ponds, fish breeders began driving the birds away, sometimes shooting them. To prevent this, the Nature and Parks Authority began buying fish that are unsuitable for commercial use and distributing them at different water reservoirs in order to keep the birds away from the commercial fishponds. But the fish breeders claim that such artificial feeding methods only prolong the birds' stay in Israel, and that they still arrive to feed off the commercial fishponds.

Nature authorities dispute this. "Recently, we followed a pelican that started the day in Israel and later on reached the Suez region in Egypt," says Hatzofe. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority say their information indicates that the pelicans arrive in Israel in a severely malnourished state but continue on their way in a short period of time.

Experts at the authority hope that the use of satellite transmitters and SIM cards provides more accurate information on the birds' movements. Hatzofe is convinced that this information will only strengthen the authority's argument that their policy of feeding the birds is proving to be successful, and that they should continue helping the pelicans to survive, without harming the fish breeders' livelihoods. The Nature and Parks Authority emphasized the need to provide alternative food sites for the pelicans in order to help them with the winter food shortage.

Israel Nature and Parks Authority