Over 46,000 migrating cranes were counted at the Lake Hula bird reserve on Wednesday morning, a cool third of the number of cranes that typically escape the European winter to Africa via Israeli skies.
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The birds are migrating south from Russia, Finland and the Baltic nations, which we know from the rings on their scaly legs. Which begged the question of how the birds get ringed.
"We hardly ring cranes, but the Europeans do," Inbar Rubin, content manager at the KKL-JNF Hula Lake, explains to Haaretz.
The Europeans can't ring baby birds because their legs would grow while the ring would not. The bird people lurk by nests and ring fledgling birds, which are pretty much full-grown but still dependent on their parents, Rubin explains.
Parents? Yes: in the case of the crane, both the male and female are involved in chick-rearing.
"These are big birds and they get colorful rings that can be seen from afar. The rings are placed on their left leg. Each nation had its own colors," Rubin explains how we know the birds hail from Russia, Finland and so on.
Altogether about 120,000 cranes are estimated to migrate through Israel eah winter, Rubin says, but a change in Israeli agriculture culture changed their migration culture as well. Once upon a time, none to few would spend the winter in Israel, but now about a third do – some 40,000 birds. Why?
Cranes sleep in shallow water during the night, but they don't eat fish. They like to eat insects, seeds, protein-rich buds from plants, small reptiles, and very small rodents like shrews. "They adore peanuts," Rubin adds.
The point is that in the late 1980s, Israeli farmers stopped growing cotton, a crop greedy for water, and moved to growing food crops: peanuts, chick peas, corn and wheat. "The cranes loved it. Why not stay here," Rubin laughs. So while insect populations in Israeli fields are low in winter, because it's chilly, there are tasty crops to eat.
"At first there were just a few cranes and everybody was really excited. Then they started to stick around and cause major damage to the crops," she says.
Israeli bird protection law prohibits farmers from killing the cranes, not that it would have helped, Rubin points out. Thus the heron feeding project began in 1999, a joint project by Agamon and the JNF (which provides most of the funding). They put out six to seven tons of corn a day in the Agamon and the birds are happy.
Corn isn't that rich in nutrients. Why not give them peanuts, if they like them so much? "It's too expensive," says Rubin, adding that the birds supplement their dietary requirements by eating bugs and coconut grass and that sort of thing.
And then in the spring, they go home.