Israel's Other Air Defense Problem

ring necked parakeet

Times of Israel exclusive: In the 1990s, ten mynas escaped a cage in central Israel and began to breed. Other aggressive tropical birds were introduced here by well-meaning amateurs. Today, the swelling population of foreign invaders is threatening the unique and fragile native ecosystem. 

The new species have been turning up more and more at the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, a small center located on parkland near the Knesset and known, unjustly, to few outside Israel’s ornithological subculture. (There are two other Israeli observatories, one in Eilat and the other in the northern Hula Valley.)

Staffers and volunteers at the observatory track birds that stay in Israel year-round and the hundreds of species that come through twice annually, during the great avian migrations from Europe to Africa and back again. The watchers of the observatory are keenly aware of the unique nature, and the fragility, of local bird life. They seem to prefer the brown-headed and unobtrusive bolbol, for example, or the rather dull-seeming local sparrow, to any resplendent parakeet.

The migrating birds who arrive here land in Jerusalem after a strenuous flight over the desert, en route to or from summer homes that are sometimes as far away as Russia or Scandinavia. A few years ago, the Jerusalem watchers spotted an eyebrow thrush from Siberia.

“They want to spend a few days recovering, building up their fat reserves, and then they keep going,” said Kacal, the manager. They typically make only one stop in Israel.

As Kacal spoke, a few brown laughing doves alighted in the long grasses near the observatory’s pond. At a table nearby, a graduate student banded a sparrow and released it into the air. Frogs made an enthusiastic racket in the reeds. A lovely burst of birdsong came from the vicinity of Kacal; it turned out to be her cellphone.

This spring migration season brought a rare sighting at the observatory: a lesser whitethroat from England, banded in the past by the British Trust for Ornithology, taking an unusually circuitous route home from Africa.

Alongside the familiar local species of migrants and year-rounders, the Jerusalem bird-watchers are counting increasing numbers of invaders. The day before my visit, two mynas showed up and were duly — and unhappily, it seemed — noted by the staff.

When ecologists list the “big three” challenges facing local wildlife across the world, the problem of invasive species is one of them, said Perlman of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. The other two are habitat destruction and over-exploitation of resources.

Data on Israel’s tropical bird invasion are still sketchy, Perlman said.

“In Israel, these phenomena are relatively new. We still don’t have enough information to know precisely how the local bird populations are being affected,” he said.

Author: Matti Friedman

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This article is just an excerpt of the original article, published in the Times of Israel.