'Big Brother' Project Will Reveal Secret Lives of Migrating Cranes

It is unclear why the common crane became such a popular bird in Israel. Is it because of their anthropomorphic traits - their monogamous relationships and faithful family life? Or perhaps it's how they gather in groups making a huge amount of noise and eating lots of humus, which reminds us of ourselves. Some say that the beauty of both the flocks and the single crane in flight are what attracts visitors in the thousands to their Hula Valley wintering spot.

Nevertheless, the presence of these magnificent avians is also a source of tension between ecological groups and farmers in the valley. The farmers say that the thousands of birds that descend on their fields to feed to their hearts' content are causing them huge financial damage.

Last year, things reached a new low in the ongoing fight between the unwilling hosts and their feathered guests. Farmers began to use sirens without any kind of expert oversight to try to scare the birds off their fields. They also began protesting against the ecological groups and bird-watching societies by using their all-terrain vehicles to block the entrance to Lake Agmon, one of the most popular crane-watching spots in the north. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel called that action "terror against animals and the tourists of the Hula Valley."

As a stop-gap measure, the birds are being fed corn in the hope that the food will keep them satisfied enough to cut down their meals at the farmers' expense. But coexistence is expected to be especially assisted by an unusual research project using the latest technology to map the birds' habits, so the resulting information can be used to help manage the cranes' presence in the valley for the benefit of all concerned.

The project, headed by the director of the SPNI Hula Valley bird-watching center, Itay Shani, is to follow a flock of about 20 cranes, which will be fitted with transmitters that report their exact location every 15 minutes. "It gives us a kind of three-dimensional digital signature. That is, we can identify the movements of the birds in three dimensions," Shani says.

Shani says they have created a digital handbook of all the birds' actions: when they walk, eat, drink, rest and other activities, describing his project as an avian "Big Brother" referring to the popular reality TV show.

"The use we developed allows us to ask questions and receive actions on many things: What's happened to birds that have migrated, what happens to those that stay at Lake Agmon; what's happening to those who leave first as opposed to those who leave later; which cranes rest longer and which practice more before takeoff," Shani says.

Shani says the technology allows them to see the individual bird, "in very high resolution," rather than only the entire flock. The technology is so precise that it can tell which birds are feasting on the farmers' humus, which on peanuts and which on corn, and how much they have downed. "That way we'll learn how the storks make their decisions."

The project, which is being conducted jointly with the ecology of movement laboratory in the Hebrew University's department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology, is funded by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and the United States Forest Service.

The project was showcased recently at a workshop held by the JNF's land development administration. Following the presentation, JNF chairman Efi Stenzler said "behind the name 'JNF land development administration' is an entire world - a huge variety of issues that encompass all aspects of life."