An Expert's View on Wildlife in Urban Environment
There is a common misconception that nature’s place is far away, well outside the boundaries of our cities and towns, to be enjoyed only during vacation. Fortunately for our animal friends, quite the opposite is true.
In fact, when reviewing the living patterns of wildlife over the past couple of decades, we have noticed that they don’t simply survive in urban areas, but they are actually thriving. This doesn’t always come about naturally though, and it is important for us to develop sanctuaries in urban settings if we hope to continue to enjoy living side by side with our local wildlife.
Like any other ecological system, urban environments develop according to the type of habitat it produces. That is to say, a bridge or a building edifice might be nothing more than a concrete structure for humans, but a bird will see the similarities to a cliff face and may decide that it is the ideal place to build its nest. With this being the case, all urban developers must be mindful enough to begin the landscaping and construction process by figuring out how their new structures will fit within a given ecological system, specifically how the local wildlife will react to and even benefit from them.
Israel’s urban landscapes are unique in that they are some of the oldest in the world, enabling us to examine how animals have been reacting to these environments over thousands of years. Wherever you look, whether in Jerusalem, Jericho, or on the coast in Caesarea, you find ancient cities that have provided a home for a wide array of Israeli wildlife, successfully integrating many species into their historic structures and spaces. Thus, Israel is like a living laboratory for the study and preservation of urban wildlife.
In the country’s ancient and modern cities alike, it is always fascinating to note how the local wildlife has changed to adapt to its newfound environments.
For instance, urban areas now boast fewer large animals, but smaller ones have adapted in ingenious ways. Over the years, we have observed certain species actually surpassing their natural abilities to survive in the wild with the introduction of cities into their habitats. With a more readily available food supply, thanks to trash thrown out by humans, and the decrease of natural predators in cities, certain species can grow unimpeded.
In order to ensure the continued survival of nature and wildlife within Israel, the urban conservation plan spearheaded by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) employs both the mapping and maintenance of local nature hotspots in cities throughout the country. These surveys supply the data needed for policy reforms that focus on creating tools for sustainable development.
Until recently, every weed in Tel Aviv was killed using harmful herbicides. Upon reviewing the data, SPNI realized that this was incredibly harmful to the local animal population. Together with several local activists groups, SPNI managed to persuade the municipality to change its method of operation. Now, all weeds are mowed to safeguard the local animals.
This example highlights the need for public intervention in the preservation of nature, especially when it comes to public policy. SPNI’s newest public policy campaign surrounds the design of new public building. We are urging the Knesset to implement legislation that would call for architects and urban developers to integrate spaces on roofs, entrances and walls that could serve as shelter for local wildlife, thereby mitigating the negative environmental impact of these structures on the surrounding natural habitats. Hopefully, this effort will be successful, and Israel will lead the way toward green building practices, fortifying nature’s place within our society.
With Israel’s population on the rise, continued urban development is guaranteed. As such, conservations activists across the country will have their work cut out for them in the years to come. But with every city expansion, we see great opportunities to implement change. However, the activists simply cannot do it alone.
Living within nature, side by side with local wildlife, is part and parcel of life. We may take it for granted, but it would impact us tremendously if it all slipped away. It’s time for individuals to speak out and insist that their local government officials implement pro-environmental policies and become fully aware of the impact of urban development on the local environment. At this crucial stage, it’s all about safeguarding the survival of nature itself, the future of which is firmly rooted within every city and town.
Amir Balaban is the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI). He also serves as the co-director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory and continues to be a force behind the renovation of the Gazelle Valley Park in Jerusalem, a pinnacle of urban nature innovation.
The love life of the Israeli Mountain Gazelle
If you were to ask a female gazelle to detail the most important qualities of an ideal mate, the domination of an area with the tastiest and most nutritious food would most certainly top her list.
Male gazelles do their utmost to dominate territories that will attract females. The richer the site, the more likely females will spend time there, thus providing the male with better opportunities to mate.
But don’t be fooled. A decent territory is never a matter of sheer luck. Fierce male competition over quality area is simply unavoidable, as males are constantly busy marking their territory and chasing away other males who are challenging their control. From time to time, these battles for dominance get violent, with goring incidents by intruders or defenders resulting in a loss of life.
It should be understood that not all males manage to dominate a territory. In fact, most males are either too young, too old or simply incapable of such domination. These males tend to huddle together into bachelor herds or dwell alone in less attractive areas, thus minimizing their chance of ever finding love.
So, it turns out that female gazelles are not at all shallow, but rather incredibly practical. Their mating choices are not based on the short-term gains of occupying the areas with the best food and shelter, but the long-term gains of mating with a male capable of securing and dominating such an area, namely the ability to pass on traits like stamina, agility, and competitiveness to their offspring. In other words, for gazelles, love between a male and female is all about survival and progression of the species.
But what about the love between a female gazelle and her fawn? A mother gazelle will do almost anything to protect her offspring. Though it defies human logic, this sometimes includes long periods of separation. The reasoning is that predators are naturally attracted to the young fawns, who are slow and, thus, ideal targets. In order to keep the predators at bay, the female gazelle hides the fawn away for long hours, only returning for brief nursing breaks a few times a day.
Every once in a while, hikers encounter an “abandoned” fawn. In most cases, these animals are being well-cared for and protected in a way best suited for the survival of its species survival. So, if you spot such a fawn while outdoors, please keep your distance and allow its mother to take care of it properly.
We must remember that while animals love differently than humans do, and we may not understand their methods of care and survival, they are simply rooted in their nature, which is profoundly beautiful in its own way.
(NOTE: If you find an injured animal, please call the Israel Nature and Parks Authority hotline at *3639.)
Official bird for the city of Eilat
If you know Eilat, you know it is a very unique place. It's remote and beautiful, surrounded by fantastic natural treasures such as the marine life, desert landscapes, bird migration, and the people who live here who have their own unique character.
So we at SPNI wanted the people of Eilat to embrace their uniqueness by connecting them to the birds of Eilat. The Environmental Education Unit of the Eilat municipality called it "place-making" and I called it getting the birds in to the hearts of the people. I guess it was both.
Our basic assumption was that the uniqueness of Eilat – the extreme climate, remoteness and outstanding landscape - creates a special character for both humans and birds, which adapt to the habitat. We picked 10 flagship bird species that seemed to have identity issues: The Sunbird is a tiny and energetic bird that originated in Eilat but is widespread across the country; the Blackstart that looks grey and shy but has a built-in colorful character; the Little Green Bee-Eater – the most beautiful bird in town and knows it too; the Rosefinch, connected to the desert ground; Brown Booby, is a “Tropical Storm” at sea that no one can ignore (it's a bird, just Google it!) and the Flamingo – that art-deco pink and ever-optimistic bird.
Two months of bird madness struck town. Every school took a day to discover its Bird Identity, the local radio station was pumped with nonstop campaigns for birds and interviewed every possible person about their chosen bird, and signs were hung throughout the town and in work places. Our nature guides, dressed with the competing birds’ costumes, went through town and lobbied people to take a vote. The town was in a total birdy madness.
Last week everyone gathered in the Eilat Bird Sanctuary; school children, teachers, families and even the Municipal Council moved their monthly meeting to the festive venue, SPNI's important birding research center at the southern tip of Israel's crucial global migration flyway. The mayor announced the iconic White-eyed Gull as the official bird of Eilat, having received 5,670 of the 15,769 votes. Eilat chose our calmest bird, one that can only live in quiet sea water, and is endemic to the protected waters of the Red Sea– local patriotism at its best.
The event was nothing less than touching and exciting. The school kids played and guided the visitors, and the guides of SPNI, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and El Arzi educators quizzed and entertained the children with the bird costumes and games. It felt like the whole town was at The Bird Sanctuary, in spirit if not in flesh, from the Mayor and his Council to my favorite checkout girl at the supermarket. A flamingo and curious Caspian Terns showed up too and we all enjoyed the best celebration in town for a long time, in 113 (Fahrenheit) degree heat, but who cares. It's our party.
Thanks to all the 'dream-come-true' makers – the Municipality of Eilat’s Environmental Education Unit, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Nature and Parks Authority and the religious field school – El Arzi.
Noam Weiss is the Director of the International Birding Research Center in Eilat, SPNI
Tagged under: Birding, Naom Weiss, Eilat
SPNI Foraging Tour
One sunny Saturday in November, I participated in one of SPNI’s Foraging Tours along Nahal Taninim (Crocodile Creek).
We are all familiar with the term ‘hunter - gatherer’ which relates to mankind’s food sources prior to agriculture, when human communities relied on naturally growing fruits and vegetables as a main source for food and medicine.
Modern agriculture and urban living enabled humankind to produce food and on a much larger scale. A relatively comfortable routine was born, but this evolution entailed a down side; we lost touch with our gathering traditions, and most botanical information, that was once common knowledge in every household, was forgotten.
In modern times, the uses of Israel’s wild plants are mostly remembered by women in Druze, Bedouin or Arab rural communities and with every new generation less and less of this herb lore is being passed-on.
Luckily, some professionals have made it their mission to provide us with first-hand experience of traditional harvesting and cooking of commonly -found wild plants.
One such culinary educator is Yatir Sade, whom I met on SPNI’s guided gathering tour, which took place along the Taninim stream one Saturday in November.
Sade’s family name fits him well – it means field in Hebrew and he certainly possess a field of fascinating knowledge on wild leafy greens.
Yatir opened his tour with a brief introduction, and made it perfectly clear that we will pick only wild plants that are abundantly found and under no risk of extinction.
As we made our way towards the stream, he picked seemingly different plants only to show us it is actually the different development stages of the same plant; thistle (Gdilan in Hebrew).
he informed us when will be the optimal picking stage and what will be the best use of each stage.
The Taninim stream was chosen by Yatir since it is one of the few clean rivers left in Israel - another SPNI success story - so the wild vegetation that grows along its banks are safe to eat.
The first plant we encountered grows almost everywhere in Israel but is often overlooked, maybe because it has no remarkable features - rumex, (Humea in Hebrew) has medium sized leaves that form a basal rosette at the root. But don’t let the plain-looking weed deceive you; once stir-fried with a couple of chopped onions and mushrooms it creates a delicious dish, prepared in no-time!
Rumex is also considered as possessing anti-oxidant qualities and the ability to alleviate skin irritation.
The second plant we gathered was watercress (Gargir Nahalim in Hebrew) an aquatic plant and one of the oldest known leaf vegetables consumed by humans. Since it only grows in fresh flowing water, you need to get your feet wet to pick it - but it’s truly worth it!
Watercress is botanically related to mustard, radish and wasabi and is often added to salads in its fresh form. We turned it into a mouthwatering pesto spread; balancing the piquant flavor with roasted cashew nuts, traditional olive oil and crushed garlic. Watercress was traditionally used to ease digestion and raise low blood pressure. In Arab culture it was believed to prevent impotency in men.
We collected three more wild herbs that are found in wetlands - a type of wild celery (Apium nodiflorum) and two types of wild mint which we used to season a fresh tangerine salad.
The rising awareness of sustainability and the growing realization that nature is disappearing around us does not mean we can’t enjoy the great nutritional and medicinal benefits of native plants – it’s simply calling on us to get educated and learn how to do it responsibly.
If you want to join one of SPNI’s tours please contact our call center +972-3-6388688
Category: Nature Trips
Jewish sustainable celebration of Trees
Wouldn’t we all wish to be like a tree? Familiar with the soil we are planted in; possessing fresh foliage and firm roots that withstand strong winds?
As the world becomes faster and more interconnected, Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish "Birthday for Trees" - celebrated this year on January 25th - invites us to stop and observe. Where have we put down our roots? What is the culture that they are growing in? How does our landscape and environment form our identity? Where do we want to raise our children?
The Mishnah describes our roots as an expression of our values in action. According to the Mishnah if we want to strengthen our roots we must reinforce our knowledge with actions. As part of this concept we can celebrate Tu B’Shvat as a day to deepen our environmental activities. Whether we choose to spend our time planting new trees or caring for old ones, taking action to reduce our consumption, spend time volunteering in the community or launching a new social action project – we will not only deepen our roots but enjoy a healthy and sustainable environment.
Tu B’Shvat – the social aspect:
Tu B’Shvat first appears in Chapter 1 of the Mishnah, in Rosh Hashanah tractate. According to Beit Hillel Tu B’Shvat was the date used to distinguish which fruits were grown in the past year and those grown in the coming one, for the purpose of tithe – donation of one tenth of the produce to the poor.
This date was created as a result of the ancient Israelites observations of nature, as they noticed the changing seasons.
They noted that most of the winter rains had already fallen halfway through the Jewish month of Shvat, and the fresh fruits had begun to grow. Hence, they chose it to mark the boundaries between the current fruits and those of next year’s crop.
Tu B'Shvat – the spiritual aspect:
Over the last two millennia the social aspect of the festival was forgotten and preserved only within the Ashkenazi tradition as a date forbidden to fast and to eat plenty of fruit.
In the 16th century Tsfat spiritualists and Kabbalists revived the concept of a Tu B’Shvat ‘Seder’ – a festive Tu B’Shvat meal where 30 different fruits would be eaten and blessings recited within a specific order. For the Kabbalists the Seder emphasizes the spiritual aspect of nature, seeing man as a partner in the act of creation and its daily renewal, who is able to repair the world through his or her actions.
Tu B'Shvat – a national aspect:
With the beginning of the Zionist enterprise Tu B'Shvat once again evolved, gaining a new practical significance – becoming the day when children from across the country plant trees, putting down their roots figuratively and taking an active part in its building and blossoming.
Tu B'Shvat– the international aspect:
In recent years, with our growing awareness of a worsening global ecological crisis Tu B’shvat has taken on a new significance as Jewish "Earth Day".
Many Jewish communities around the world have chosen Tu B’Shvat as a time for ecological introspection and acknowledging that the destruction of nature does nothing but cut through the branch on which we sit. Tu B’Shvat allows us to take action to create a balanced world where nature and man co-exists in harmony.
Tu B'Shvat – the personal aspect:
Today Tu Bishvat is a special day uniquely combining tradition, history, spirituality, mysticism social action, Zionism and environmentalism. We all have the right - and the obligation- to pour our own personal values into this celebration, as we fuse our heritage with the current modern Israeli version of Arbor Day.
So what can you do to celebrate?
Plant a fruit tree: celebrate the traditional way. Just remember a tree is for life not just for Tu B’Shvat! Give it a few years and with the right care you enjoy its fruit at your own Tu B’Shvat Seder.
Make your own Tu B’Shvat Seder: download a Seder ceremony composed by “Teva Ivri “and invite your friends over to celebrate. You are more than welcome to join one of the Tu B’shvat Seders organized by SPNI in several locations such as Alon Tavor, the Beit- Ussishkin museum at Kibbutz Dan, and more.
Get out and enjoy nature, wherever you are: And if you’re lucky enough to live in Israel, SPNI has many activities planned, including our traditional tree planting and guided hikes around Modi’in, attended by thousands. If you live abroad look out for details of activities in your area.
Respect the elderly (trees): every tree has its own story and some trees in your neighborhood may be hundreds of years old. Tu B’Shvat is a great opportunity to do some of your own research and discover your neighborhood’s natural history. What you might find may surprise you.
Protect the environment: the environment is much more than just trees; you can volunteer in a conservation project by your local organizations, join one of the many action-oriented campaigns spearheaded by SPNI, or support SPNI’s all year round nature protection work.
Category: Our Global Community