Loss of Natural Lands Puts Squeeze on Dozens of Israeli Bird Species

Large parts of Israel have lost around a quarter of their natural lands, causing distress among many birds but proving a boon for a few others, research shows

The crowned sandgrouse, one of the primary victims of man's "violation" of nature in the northern Negev.
Yehonatan Meirav/Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel

Large parts of Israel have lost around a quarter of their natural lands between 1970 and 2010, according to a new survey published this week. The disappearance of these open areas has undermined the habitats of dozens of bird species from Beit Shemesh to the northern Negev, the researchers say.

At the same time, the areas of planted forests and lands used for agriculture have grown considerably, as the population over these 40 years has expanded from 3 million to 7.5 million people.

The research was published in the latest issue of Ecology and Environment, published by the Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences. The research was done by Dana Levy and Dr. Takuya Iwamura of Tel Aviv University’s Zoology Department, along with Prof. Noam Levin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The researchers examined three areas of 400 square kilometers each. The northernmost one went from the western edge of the Judean Desert to the coastal plain near Ramle, and includes forested areas. The second area went from the Lachish Hills and Kiryat Gat to the edges of the Negev, an area that includes both forested areas and areas with low shrubs. The third area was the northern Negev from Be’er Sheva east to Arad, an area that includes unrecognized Bedouin villages, forests in the Yatir area, and large swaths of loess soil. These areas were chosen because they represent a variety of climates, from a Mediterranean climate in the northernmost section to a semi-arid and arid climate in the south.

The researchers examined the various land uses in these areas between 1970 and 2010. They divided those areas into sections considered “natural,” which included areas with forests, shrubs and loess plains in the Negev. They also examined changes in the scope of lands designated “violated” by man. These are areas that included construction and development, but also the planting of forests and the cultivation of crops. The researchers also examined how the changes affected the habitats of 88 species of birds.

According to the study, the natural areas had shrunk by 26 percent over the 40 years, while the scope of violated lands had grown significantly. The built-up areas doubled and the area of artificial reservoirs grew by 90 percent. The areas of planted forest were up an average of 40 percent, going up 90 percent in the northern Negev.

As a result of these changes, 80 percent of the areas’ bird species lost various degrees of their habitats, the researchers said. “We didn’t use data based on bird observations, but relied on the available knowledge of the habitats suited to these species,” Levy said. “During the next stage we will add statistics based on observations.”

It turns out that there are both winners and losers from the changes to these areas caused by man. For example, the barn owl and the Eurasian collared dove now have much larger suitable areas. The primary victims are desert species like the cream-colored courser, a nocturnal bird, and the crowned sandgrouse.