How to Bird-watch Without Leaving the City

The heartwarming sight that greeted passersby on King George Street in Tel Aviv a few years ago will be long remembered. A huge flock of starlings hovered above the street and performed a magnificent aerobatic dance for several minutes. Pedestrians who noticed what was happening above their heads stopped to watch in amazement. When the flock finished its performance, a few of the people below even clapped their hands in glee.

For years, bird-watchers have known about the fascinating presence of wild birds, such as starlings or kestrels, inside the urban environment, and in recent years have been inviting the general public to join them. It began in the 1980s, with veteran bird researchers like Dr. Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University, who taught people to welcome the common kestrel, which nests in flower boxes on residential balconies. The bird-watching hobby continues today, with projects that combine research with education, for people from all walks of life. Leshem continues his activities via a project to encourage nesting by kestrels and owls in Tel Aviv, in partnership with the Tel Aviv Municipality.

The Israeli Center for Yardbirds is one of the organizations that encourages the public to become involved in urban bird-watching. The center was established two years ago by Shlomit Lifschitz and Doron Lahav, and is operated largely on a volunteer basis. Last week Lifschitz held a meeting with a group of elementary and nursery school teachers, who came to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot to learn how to observe urban birds, to recognize their behavior and to find ways of enticing them to visit and nest in house gardens. In a short bird-watching exercise, the teachers identified over 10 varieties of songbirds, including partridges and a common stonechat, which exhibited its skill at hunting insects.

Wildlife close to home

"Our goal is to give people their first taste of bird-watching, to pique their interest and teach them how to invite birds into their garden or school yard," explains Lifschitz. Lahav, her partner in founding the center, tried to attract birds to visit his yard. He set up a feeding and drinking corner for birds, and later nesting boxes, too. Now the center distributes information to the general public on nesting boxes, and Lifschitz visits schools and helps turn their gardens and yards into sites that attract birds.

"The average pupil who lives in an urban environment does not often get to see a stork or a pelican," explains Lahav. "He does see tits, sparrows and sunbirds. We want children to hear more than just the noises of the city, and to be able to identify the calls of the birds, or to see the nests of tits or sunbirds, which are quite fascinating. When people want to invite birds to their gardens, we suggest they set up a feeding corner. This is much simpler and more convenient than a nesting box, which works mainly for the tits."

"There are some birds that do not nest in nesting boxes," notes Leshem. "The common kestrel, for example, loves mainly window boxes. We currently know of about 200 pairs of kestrels nesting year after year in the same window boxes.

Families that have kestrels nesting outside their balconies have an opportunity to see a wild animal at a distance of two feet. There is no need to feed them, as they hunt for themselves and have earned the nickname "sandwich hunters."

"One of the main ideas behind activities with urban birds is that if city residents learn to recognize the importance of birds in the urban environment, they will also appreciate the importance of preserving birds in nature," adds Leshem.

One of the main and most ambitious activities of the Center for Yardbirds is Backyard Bird Count Week, which will be held at the end of this month for the second time. Last year over 200 people participated in the count and Lahav hopes that within a few years this number will grow to a few thousand. For a whole week, each person fills in a form to indicate how many of each breed of birds he saw.

"In the U.K., hundreds of thousands of people participate in such bird counts, and if they are held a few years in a row, they will provide information that we currently lack regarding urban birds," explains Lahav.

"We will be able to discover which breeds are disappearing, as happened in the case of the sparrow in the U.K.," he says.

Lahav hopes to receive additional information from the public regarding the night resting spots of urban birds. One of the teachers noted at a recent seminar on night resting spots that thousands of wagtails rested in one tree in the Krayot suburbs of Haifa.

The hotline for tracking and studying birds in Jerusalem is in the bird research station run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), near the Knesset building.

Station researchers decided that one of the best ways to encourage interest in birds is to invite the public to watch the banding of birds - the attaching of a tracking band to a bird's leg. The band notes when and where the bird was caught, and that information helps track the bird's movements around the world.

A team of bird banders has been trained at the station, including banders from East Jerusalem. Lahav says that the most exciting moments are when they catch a bird that already has a band from a different country. During one of the recent banding campaigns a willow warbler, which weighs just 11 grams (less than half an ounce) was found in the net, after making its way here all the way from Finland via Sweden. After we gently attached a band to its leg, the warbler continued on its long journey to the equatorial region in Africa.