There is an old adage, something about early birds and worms, that is difficult to make clear in the mind at 8 o’clock in the morning. That, however, was when ornithologist Yossi Leshem took the stage recently at Sinai Temple, his speech brisk and casual, energy already up in the stratosphere. The talk he was giving, titled “Migrating Birds Know No Boundaries,” was intended to introduce to the gathered crowd, sizeable in spite of the early hour, the “multidisciplinary concept” of bird migration and its possible implications for the economic and political future of his native country, Israel.
It turns out that ornithology and bird watching have recently become dynamic features of Israeli culture, due in large part to Leshem’s enthusiasm and activism. In 2007, he helped begin a nationwide campaign to elect a national bird, involving schools as well as army units in advocating for their bird of choice. The winner, the pink, black and white-crested hoopoe, or duchifat in Hebrew, was announced in May 2008 by President Shimon Peres, whose last name, as it happens, refers to a bearded vulture. Peres chose it while emigrating to Israel after seeing the bird fly above him in the desert; “At the time,” Leshem observed wryly from the podium, “he didn’t know it was a scavenger.”
Leshem began his research almost by accident as a doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University in the late ’80s; in the process of borrowing a Cessna from the air force in order to count migrating birds flying too high to be seen with binoculars, he discovered the all-too-high number of injuries, accidents and deaths caused by birds colliding with military planes mid-flight. (This kind of collision became front-page news in January, when birds brought down US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River.) Leshem convinced the Israeli army to let him look into bird migration patterns (“You pay, I’ll do the research,” he says now of his proposal), and he eventually produced a map of “Bird Plagued Regions” to be avoided during migration season. This map has reduced collisions by 76 percent in the intervening decade, a startling and impressive decrease.
That program’s success opened doors for Leshem; he began to conceive of other ways that ornithology might be useful to his country. Half a million birds migrate over Israel twice a year, once in autumn and once in spring, a record number for such a geographically tiny country. While two breeds of eagle, the U.S. national bird, can be seen on American land, 12 breeds migrate over Israeli soil. Clearly, he thought, this is an untapped opportunity to promote tourism and benefit Israel’s economy.
There are also political and environmental applications to Leshem’s work; for instance, a program instituted several years ago has encouraged farmers to place nesting boxes for barnyard owls in their fields. The owls serve as pest control, lessening the amount of pesticides sprayed on Israeli crops and consequently, the number of birds dying from poisoned produce and water tainted by runoff. He’s taken the program to several neighboring countries, uniting Arab and Israeli farmers in the effort. The army has even donated old ammunition boxes to be converted into the nests, bringing to life another old adage: if these aren’t exactly swords and ploughshares, well, the sentiment is the same.
Finally, there are school programs; as Leshem puts it, “Everything goes on the Internet,” so his work appears at birds.org.il, where schoolchildren in Israel and across the world can access it. A variety of birds are tagged and tracked so their migratory habits can be observed; each is given a traditionally Jewish, Christian and Muslim name in order to convey the sense that these birds are not so much partisans as citizens of the world. One such pair, a male and female, were monitored as they made a 13-year round-trip from Israel to Africa, the male heading northwest, while the female opted for the southern tip of the continent. Upon her arrival at their home nest in Israel, however, the female found that her mate had taken advantage of her delay in returning and took up with someone new. Life lessons of all kinds, it seems, can be learned from birding.
Leshem ended his talk with an exhortation to the children of the world to follow their dreams, noting that his mother considered ornithology a hobby and, like any good Jewish parent, wanted him to become a doctor or lawyer. “Don’t listen to your parents,” he joked.
His hobby has become his life’s work; his work has changed the way Israel flies its planes and tends its crops. The hoopoe, he pointed out, is familiar from biblical tradition — it is known in legend as a bird so tough that it can bore through rock. Not at all a bad symbol for so resilient a country, and so inspiring a man.