Over the past week an unusual, noisy spectacle has been going on daily in the backyard of Guy Ben-Dor, a farmer in Yesud Hama’ala in Israel's far north. The ruckus begins in the early morning in the pecan orchard next to the yard and spills out onto the lawn: thousands of cranes pecking the ground in search of nuts. They’re shrieking at the top of their lungs and waking everyone within earshot.
Thousands of cranes have been raiding gardens and fields around Yesud Hama’ala this week – once they found that there was no food at their feeding stations.
“They’re all over the orchards, too, looking for fruit kernels,” Ben-Dor says. “They’ve caused heavy damage to the crops; not to the orchards, though,” Ben-Dor says, adding that he has no problem with the new neighbors. “It’s nature. They deserve to live, too. They were here before us.”
If you’ve never come near a crane you might not know that the bird is as tall as 120 centimeters (4 feet) and has a wingspan of up to 222 centimeters. Ben-Dor’s family has been in the area for five generations, but he has never heard of such an invasion.
According to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Yesud Hama’ala isn’t alone. The cranes seem to have spread out this year more than ever and can be spotted in the Golan and in the Harod Valley and Betiha to the south.
This development seems to stem from a dispute among the agencies responsible for the feeding project for the cranes in the Hula Valley in the far north. The agencies are supposed to provide food at feeding stations during the winter so that the birds don’t go looking for it on nearby farms.
Due to the dispute, the farmers who pay for most of the feed didn’t provide the food in December as usual; they only began feeding the cranes about a week ago after the sides reached an understanding.
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The Jewish National Fund has undertaken to put more money into the project, which is estimated at 5 million to 6 million shekels ($1.7 million) a year. The agencies also agreed to meet once more to discuss the program’s implementation next year. Still, the cranes have discovered the pecans at Yesud Hama’ala, and they like them.
Every winter the Jewish National Fund boasts about the number of cranes, and many other bird species, visiting Lake Hula. Omri Boneh, says a scientist at the Jewish National Fund, says that when the crane feeding project was starting out in the Hula Valley two decades ago, around 10,000 birds would arrive annually.
When cotton was grown in the Hula Valley in the ‘80s, the bird numbers were much lower, says an ecologist at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, Amit Dolev. “The day they started growing chickpeas and peanuts, energy-rich foods, the damage began,” he says.
More than 100,000 cranes fly over Israel every autumn on their way to Africa from Europe. Every year more of them are counted – some of them stop for a while and others stick around for the winter. According to the JNF, in 2015 some 3,000 cranes were counted at the beginning of the season and 41,000 at its peak. Every year the numbers rose and by 2019, the peak reached 56,000.
“Over the last two decades the conflicts over feeding the cranes have been reduced, which led to the addition of food in the lake area,” Dolev says. “The quantities came to more than 10 tons of kernels a day. As a result, the crane population remaining in Israel increased.”
Boneh suggests another reason for the increase in traffic: climate change. “We have no control over it, just as we have no control over the fact that because of climate change, many cranes that used to continue on to Africa have decided to stay here,” he says. “A similar thing occurs in Spain – cranes that used to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa now remain in Spain.”
As Boneh puts it, “The farmers always used to feed the cranes. This year, due to the rise in costs, they brought the issue to a crisis, but that doesn’t change the fact that cranes will continue to come in the coming years and we have to find a way to deal with it.”
Ofer Barnea, CEO of the Upper Galilee Agricultural Co., admits that it’s harder to count the cranes this year. One reason is the flooding in the valley, which sent the cranes looking for sleeping places away from the lake all over the valley.
Barnea also believes that the cranes’ numbers will increase. He stresses the need to preserve the balance between farming, nature and tourism. The goal is to reach a number of cranes “we can handle,” he says. “Ten-thousand cranes is reasonable, we can handle that. But the change that took place led to thousands of birds arriving here and it disrupted the balance. We couldn’t handle it, so we changed the policy.”
Officials at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which isn’t part of the project, say the project shouldn’t have been launched in its current format, which they say isn’t the right solution.
“We objected to the idea of creating feeding stations for wildlife,” Dolev says. “We’ve been dealing with this with almost every species we handle. The attempt to solve the conflict stops the bird migration and ends up exacerbating the conflict.”
Dolev cites the Jezreel Valley, where a few thousands of birds have been counted. “We recommended not to add food, and the situation there is relatively reasonable,” he says.
With pelicans, however, where the authority is part of the feeding project, “we show that it doesn’t affect the number of birds that stay in Israel but only reduces the conflict – unlike with the cranes.”
Dolev notes that the cranes’ sojourn in Israel ends at the beginning of March. “I assume this year’s results, which were different, will be the basis for making decisions in the future,” he says.