Last week I went to the Upper Galilee to report on the handling of the avian flu disaster that struck the flocks of cranes at Lake Hula. For two weeks, workers gathered thousands of crane carcasses from the land and the water. Innumerable birds of other species died in the brush, without anyone knowing or counting them.
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On the way back I stopped at a cafe in Rosh Pina. In the afternoon, when I left, there was a deafening noise outside. The three large eucalyptus trees outside the café were abuzz with bird chirps. There was no need to look up in order to identify them – hundreds of rose-ringed parakeets were settling in for the night on the trees. The evening before I had received a video recorded by Arik Hayat, who lives in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv. The clip shows an enormous flock, of hundreds of western jackdaws, a small member of the crow family, carrying out noisy evening maneuvers. Residents of the neighborhood are familiar with the problem. In their desperation, city workers have begun draping netting on trees in the area, to keep the birds from sleeping on them.
Cranes aren’t supposed to die of flu, parakeets aren’t supposed to live on eucalyptus trees near the Hula Valley and jackdaws aren’t supposed to take over entire streets in Jerusalem. These phenomena show just how screwed up nature in Israel has become.
Cranes have been migrating between Europe and Africa for hundreds of thousands of years and the disruption in the migration pattern began some years ago. Warmer winters due to climate change and the availability of food in European dumps have tempted increasing numbers of cranes to forgo or shorten their winter migration to the south. At Lake Hula they began to feed the cranes as a result of escalating hostility toward them by local farmers. You don’t need a degree in epidemiology to understand that tens of thousands of individuals eating and crapping in a single field is fertile ground for a virus outbreak.
The parakeets and their invading sisters, the common mynas, the monk parakeet and others, were brought to this country and spread exponentially until they became the most common species. Alongside these one can find local but aggressively spreading species such as hooded crows and jackdaws. All have adapted to life alongside humans, and we for our part have done everything to help them push out the local birds: the great tit, the common blackbird, the bulbul, the graceful prinia and more. The invaders and aggressive spreaders thrive on unlimited food sources – open garbage cans, landfills, food left out for street cats, a gardening culture that prefers watered lawns to native flora, and the continued destruction of open spaces and cutting down of trees in cities.
The sad state of Israel’s birds proves how broken Israeli nature is. We broke it with our own hands, with suburban-style communities, superfluous highway interchanges, lawns, administrative errors, negligence and greed. There is no scenario in which the situation doesn’t get worse. Nature will become diminished and more distorted, invasive species will fill the land and native ones will be pushed into tiny enclaves on nature reserves, until they disappear from them as well.
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During the entire way back from the lake, on the wide highways built in the Galilee in recent years, I had the feeling that the damage cannot be repaired, not in the next few decades, perhaps not ever. Despair leads nowhere. We must continue to fight against wasteful development plans and for the conservation of natural resources, sustainable gardening and the protection of native species – but perhaps we also need a moment to grieve.