Interspecies Coexistence: Israeli Farmers Being Trained to Get Along Better With Birds

Agriculture Ministry, nature groups fight extinction threats by teaching humans how to treat their feathered friends

Cranes in the Hura Valley, March 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Farmers and birds are often connected to the same piece of territory, though usually the birds defer to the humans and tend to stay away whenever people are around. But Israeli nature conservation groups have been working on some avian-human coexistence projects that could change that scenario.

The red-winged pratincole, a beautiful bird that nests in farming areas, can attest to the endeavor's success.

Israel once boasted of hundreds of pairs of red-winged pratincoles, which migrate from Africa to Europe in the spring and stop to nest in Israel. But in recent decades only a few pair remain in the Hula, Jezreel and Zebulon valleys. Agricultural methods involving heavy machinery and pesticides did some damage to this species locally. Moreover, a few years ago it was observed that many baby birds were being crushed beneath huge bales of compressed alfalfa.

“They don’t know how to deal with these threats,” says Yifat Artzi, an Israel Nature and Parks Authority ecologist. Evolution has taught the pratincole to hide, not to flee from activity in the field, she says.

University of Haifa biologist Liraz Cabra has been studying pratincoles in the Hula Valley for the past three years, examining their nesting habits near cultivated areas. She has concluded that despite the risks, these birds prefer nesting in the fields rather than alternative sites made to look like cultivated earth that the parks authority and the farmers set aside for them. The parks authority even manufactured faux-pratincole calls to try and attract the birds to these alternative fields, but it didn't work.

Cabra has now devised a model to predict when the birds will choose to nest, and based on her findings, a cooperative effort was forged among the parks authority, the Society for the Protection of Nature and local farmers. Ahead of and during nesting time, the famers stop cultivating some of their fields.

“Now that we know where they can be expected to nest, we meet with the farmers to reach understandings on how to treat the area,” to avoid hurting the birds, Artzi said. To this end, the farmers have to keep heavy equipment out of the nesting area, and if as a result they have to postpone planting or harvesting, they are compensated by the INPA and the Agriculture Ministry for doing so.

In the latest issue of the Hebrew-language journal Ecology & Environment, Artzi, and Nadav Israeli from the Society for Protection of Nature’s Israel Ornithological Center, reported that last spring 30 pairs of pratincoles successfully reproduced in the Hula Valley’s peanut fields. Each pair raised one chick, which is typical of this species. In the southern Golan Heights another colony was spotted, which was able to survive after the area’s farmers postponed their carrot planting in exchange for compensation. Another cooperative effort between farmers and ornithologists allowed 35 pairs of pratincoles to mate successfully in the Beit Shean Valley. The parks authority is currently cooperating with kibbutzim in the Hula Valley on this project.

“There was not one case where farmers refused to cooperate,” Artzi said.

Flying biological pesticides

Farmers and barn owls have also found a way to coexist, thanks to the latter’s taste for rodents – mice, voles and jirds. Forty years ago, farmers from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit Shean Valley began putting up nesting boxes to take advantage of this nocturnal raptor’s hunting skills, to keep the rodents from overpopulating and devouring their crops.

In 2007 the nesting box project went national and is now being led by the Agriculture Ministry, Tel Aviv University and the SPNI.

In the latest issue of Ecology & Environment, Yoav Motro of the Agriculture Ministry reported that there are nearly 5,000 nesting boxes for barn owls. According to the most recent annual report on the project, the owls are occupying almost a third of the boxes in some areas. “The use of pesticides against rodents nation-wide has dropped by almost 50 percent compared to before the project was started,” Motro wrote.

Jordan and the Palestinian Authority have also adopted the practice, and now have some 500 nesting boxes. Experts from Israel have also recently become involved in similar projects in other countries, including Cyprus, Greece and Spain. Last year Israel and Switzerland hosted international seminars on using biological 'pesticides' by means of raptors.

Feeding the cranes

Coexistence between farmers and birds still has a way to go, however. In the north, for example, flocks of pelicans would gobble up large quantities of fish from commercial ponds. To deal with the problem, the INPA moved surplus fish to ponds earmarked for the pelicans. But according to nature activists, fish breeders sometimes shoot pelicans who come to their ponds, though the breeders deny it.

Cranes are a particularly tough case. Almost 50,000 of them come annually to the Hula Valley and have become a main tourist attraction. To stop them from raiding the fields for food, it was decided to feed them corn every year. The cost comes to a few million shekels and requires coordination among many parties, including the farmers, government ministries and the Jewish National Fund. There were times when it looked like the cooperation was failing, but currently, the cranes are still coming and the farmers are still helping to feed them. This week more than 15,000 hungry cranes landed in the Hula Valley on their migration flights to Africa for the winter.