Meet the Birdman

July, 17 2011
Yossi Leshem

by Sarah Breger

A worn white Toyota barrels down a quiet side street in West Jerusalem at full speed. The car, covered with decals of wild birds, stops short, and a giant man with tufts of curly grey hair sprouting from his head leaps out in front of me. “No bearding today,” he announces in heavily accented English. “I’m sorry, what?” I ask. “No bearding, no bearding,” he says impatiently, already jumping back in the car and motioning for me to follow. “Oh you mean, birding?” “Yes, bearding.”

Yossi Leshem—the world-renowned ornithologist and champion of Israel’s environmental movement—resembles a cross between a linebacker and an academic. Frameless glasses perched precariously on his nose, he speeds through Jerusalem’s narrow streets, simultaneously leaning down to fumble for a pamphlet about owls, answering his cell phone and informing me that it is too cloudy to bird-watch. Our plans to visit the Jerusalem Bird Observatory near the Knesset are cancelled.

“Israel is a small country and at the junction of three continents—Asia, Europe and Africa,” says Leshem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration in Latrun, and a lecturer at Tel Aviv University. “From a political point of view it’s a disaster, but with about 500 million birds flying over Israel every year, it’s a world phenomenon.”

Twice a year, Israel’s skies fill with 200 different species of birds following the 4,400 mile Great Rift Valley migratory route from Turkey to Mozambique. Each autumn they fly from north to south, returning each spring. Tens of thousands of imperial eagles swoop over the Arava Valley on their way from Hungary to Tanzania while 80,000 Eurasian cranes stop in the Hula Valley for fresh water. The tiny blackcap warbler pauses to refuel in Eilat, after using so much energy that it has digested its own intestines.

Flocks soar over Israel by catching thermals—rising masses of warm air—which occur only over land and help birds stay aloft with minimal effort. To ensure they have a place to rest and feed, birds avoid the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas, making Israel a bird “bottleneck,” one of only three of this magnitude (the other two: the Straits of Gibraltar and Panama).

At 64, Leshem, with his boyish enthusiasm, is king of the birds, or at the very least, their indefatigable agent. Souvenirs from his avian triumphs—posters of cranes, wine bottles adorned with pictures of birds and papers from recent conferences—roll around the car. They fly off the floor when the car lurches toward a parking spot around the corner from a Rechavia café. Leshem wants everyone—and he means everyone—to know about Israel’s extraordinary birds. “If you ask any Jew or non-Jew what they know about Israel they will immediately tell you of the conflict with the Palestinians or long years of historical archeology,” he tells me. “But they have never heard about the birds.”

Born in Haifa in 1947, Leshem has been obsessed with birds since childhood. “My mother made aliyah from Frankfurt am Main,” says Leshem. “She was a keen hiker and had the impression that the air in Haifa was polluted, so every second week she would take us hiking and make us breathe the air deeply.” As he got older, he hiked on his own or with friends, on one occasion running into former Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, another nature lover, in the Negev desert.

“As a child I was very connected to flight, and when I was in secondary school I knew everything about aircraft,” says Leshem. “But when I was 16 or 17, I learned that I needed glasses,” ending his dream of becoming a pilot. After his army service, Leshem turned to biology and genetics at Hebrew University. In 1971, he took a job at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), Israel’s oldest and largest conservation organization. His first assignment was to save what remained of Israel’s raptors, birds of prey such as hawks, buzzards and owls, which had become endangered in Israel due to pesticides, development and other hazards. Some, like the spotted eagle, the white-tailed eagle, the lappet-faced vulture and the bearded vulture have died out in Israel altogether.

It was Leshem’s work with raptors that led him to fall in love with birds—much to his mother’s disappointment. “My Jewish mother said, ‘How can you make a living from birds?’ She wanted me to be a physician or a lawyer, not a birder,” Leshem recalls with a laugh.

Leshem spent 24 years at SPNI, as a guide, as director of a field school and, from 1991 to 1995, as its director general. During his tenure, Leshem was credited with awakening Israel’s interest in its birds: “Yossi Leshem has been one of the most colorful SPNI leaders since the 1970s,” says preeminent environmentalist Alon Tal in his definitive book, Pollution in a Promised Land. “During the past 20 years no one has had greater success in raising public awareness about any environmental issue than he has in his campaign to protect birds, in particular birds of prey.”

In the seventies and eighties, Israelis were learning to look at their land anew. Raised on the Zionist motto of “build and be built”—which led to rapid development in the nation’s early decades—they were now seeing that some attempts to reshape the landscape could lead to destruction of crucial ecosystems. One such ecological disaster was Northern Israel’s Hula Valley. Heralded as a symbol of Zionist imagination in the 1950s, the Hula’s malarial swamps were drained to make way for farmland. But the environmental costs soon became clear. The soil deteriorated, freshwater plants became extinct, animal species died out and the migratory birds were forced to find other places to feed on their route between Europe and Africa.

Israel’s environmental movement formed around the hard lessons of the Hula Valley, inspiring young Israelis to pay new attention to the flora, animal life and, in Leshem’s case, birds. But it was in 1983, while hunting for a Ph.D. dissertation topic in the zoology department at Tel Aviv University, that Leshem stumbled upon his future. A pilot friend showed him Israeli Air Force files on bird-aircraft collisions, and he was shocked by the toll birds had taken on Israeli planes. He approached the Air Force with a proposal: he would analyze birds’ routes and flying patterns to prevent these accidents.

He was told that with all of Israel’s security concerns, birds were not a priority. But a few months later, a honey buzzard downed a Skyhawk fighter plane west of Hebron. The pilot was tossed from the plane, landing unconscious, and the plane—worth $5 million—was destroyed. The accident convinced Major General Amos Lapidot, then-Commander of the Air Force, to give Leshem a call.

Bird-plane collisions are as old as aviation itself: The first known bird strike occurred in 1908 when Orville Wright’s plane hit a bird near Dayton, Ohio. The first fatality attributed to a bird came in 1912, when a plane in California crashed after a gull was caught in its control cables. From 2001 to 2007, 42,508 bird strikes were reported to the International Civil Aviation Organization, and most researchers assume many more have gone unreported. In 2010, around 5,000 bird strikes were reported by the U.S. Air Force, and more than 9,000 for American civil aircraft, according to Bird Strike Committee USA, an organization that works to prevent bird-plane collisions.

In general, military aircraft are more vulnerable to bird strikes because they travel at high speeds and lower altitudes, where most birds fly. Commercial flights, however, are most at risk during takeoffs or landings. Most bird-plane collisions do little damage to planes and don’t disrupt flights, but some do, and famously so. In January 2009, a flock of geese was sucked into the engine of a U.S. Airways jet, forcing an emergency landing in New York City’s Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crew survived, thanks to the crew and the pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who managed a near-impossible landing. “It was really a miracle,” says Leshem, who is trying to convince the notably reserved pilot to visit Israel and see his bird strike prevention systems.

With a large number of birds and an active Air Force in limited airspace, Israel is particularly vulnerable to bird-plane collisions. The first major bird strike accident occurred in 1974, when a plane flying over the Hula Valley struck a pelican, killing the pilot. Since the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt and the 1982 withdrawal from the Sinai, the Air Force has no longer been able to train over the expansive desert, further limiting its airspace. Over the last 25 years, Israel’s Air Force has suffered more than 3,000 air collisions with birds, averaging 258 a year, and lost eight aircraft and three pilots. The financial cost to the military has exceeded tens of millions of dollars. “The Air Force has lost more planes to bird strikes than to enemy action,” says Leshem.

Determined to better understand birds’ migratory paths, Leshem galvanized a network of 600 bird-watchers from 17 different countries to watch their migrations and report what they saw. He set up 25 observation stations in Israel, where each bird-watcher could count birds and record the direction of their flight.

But the watchers couldn’t see birds that flew out of their sight or that flew at night. So Leshem secured an old Russian MRL-5 radar system and found an ex-Soviet general to man it. But while the radar could monitor the birds’ patterns and speed, it was unable to identify species or determine the size of flocks. Leshem soon realized that he would need to be in the sky with the birds. He experimented with a small aircraft, but the noise scared the birds away. The solution: Leshem built a quiet, motorized glider that held a pilot and a passenger, allowing him to fly among the birds without disturbing them.

Leshem published his findings in his dissertation, explaining that migrating birds took three main “superhighways” each year. Leshem tracked where and when different species flew, finding that each species consistently took the same route, at the same altitude, at the same time. Similar superhighways can be found around the world, including the Kittatinny Ridge in eastern North America, the Rocky Mountains in western North America and the Rift Valley in East Africa.

Based on his research, Leshem recommended a ban on low-altitude flights under 3,280 feet in migratory paths during spring and fall. “Because so many birds come over Israel, you cannot change them or move them,” he says. “You can just learn when exactly they are coming and leaving, what height they are flying and what route.” Leshem launched a campaign in 1985 called “Take Care, We Share the Air” to encourage Israeli pilots to avoid superhighways and created a system by which he could deliver real-time information to the pilots. At first the pilots laughed, but when they saw the number of collisions plummet, they heartily embraced it.

Previously, bird strikes were considered “an act of God,” says Nicholas Carter, a consultant at Birdstrike Control Program, a Texas-based company that creates wildlife and bird hazard control systems. Everyone assumed that trying to stop bird strikes would be like “trying to stop the wind,” he says. Leshem’s work proved that these collisions were preventable, not inevitable. Since 1984, Israel has experienced an 88 percent reduction of bird-collisions, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Carter credits Leshem—whom he describes as the “Jacques Cousteau of birds”—with laying the groundwork for other countries. The United States is 15 years behind Israel in terms of bird strike technology, and Panama some 15 years behind the U.S., says Carter, who works with the IAF as well as with American and Canadian forces, and is adapting Israel’s mortar-detecting infrared technology to enhance bird-tracking technology.

For his work Leshem received the 2005 Mike Kuhring Prize from the International Bird Strike Committee, and the Yitzhak Sade Prize for Military Writing in 1994 for his book, Flying with the Birds. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates that Leshem has saved the IAF over $300 million, as well as the lives of many pilots. “There is a saying in Judaism that anyone who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world,” Leshem tells me. “I am sure I have saved more than one life with all these projects.”

As we sit among the Friday coffee-shop crowd, it is clear that birds are not just Leshem ’s occupation, but his passion, and he longs for Israelis to love these extraordinary creatures as much as he does. “Marketing birds is like marketing coffee,” he tells me with a sweeping gesture. Even in a café filled with patrons sitting back-to-back and no room to squeeze between tables, this oversized man’s outsized enthusiasm can’t be restrained.

Birds are his product and people of the world are his customers. “The man has nothing but birds on his mind,” says Uri Goldflam, Director of External Relations and Development at SPNI. “There are many ornithologists in Israel but no one has the kind of energy and charisma that Yossi does. When you are talking to him, you also start to believe everything revolves around birds.”

One of Leshem’s most successful initiatives to date was his campaign to select a national bird for Israel. In 2008, in celebration of Israel’s 60th birthday, he ran a five-month-long contest to have Israelis—mostly students—pick the bird that would represent their country. Teachers were given lesson plans on birds and conservation, and politicians such as Shimon Peres and Tzipi Livni chose birds to endorse. The campaign was a public relations coup, even catching the attention of American television host Stephen Colbert.

With 155,000 votes cast, the winner was the unprepossessing hoopoe, which received 35 percent of the vote, beating out nine other finalists. The hoopoe—duchifat in Hebrew and hud-hud in Arabic—is black and white with an orange mohawk and only appears in the Bible in a list of “unclean” or non-kosher birds. Many Israelis were surprised at the victory of a small and undistinguished bird that resembles a Tel Aviv punk rocker. “I am actually quite sad,” Lior Kislev, an Israeli bird guide and photographer, says, “It is already found in many other places.” His choice? The spur winged plover. Daphna Berger, the ecotourism director of Kibbutz Lotan, had her heart set on the Palestine sunbird but thought it would be blackballed for political reasons and thus also placed her bets on the spur winged plover. “It is really representative of Israel,” she says. “It is a loud bird, a bit pushy, very unafraid of going anywhere.” Even Colbert got in on the act, wishing Israelis success on their new bird on his show: “Congratulations, Israel. Just as America soars like the mighty eagle, may you emulate the noble long-billed hoopoe by squirting fecal matter at intruders.”

The hoopoe, however, actually does have a rich history in the Middle East. In the Talmud, the hoopoe transports theshamir, the miraculous worm that can split the stones of the Temple. In the Quran, the hoopoe serves as a go-between for the rivals and lovers King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The 12th century Sufi poet Farid al-Din Attar, inspired by the hoopoe in the Quran, wrote an epic poem about the search for truth led by the hoopoe. This in turn inspired writer Salman Rushdie to choose the hoopoe as the creature leading his protagonist to fulfill his quest in the novel, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Leshem is delighted by the choice of the hoopoe as well as by the publicity generated by the campaign. He repeatedly asks me if I have seen the Colbert segment, and proudly tells me about the public relations awards the campaign has won. Leshem is especially thrilled that his longtime friend, Shimon Peres, announced the winner of the competition at the president’s residence in Jerusalem in May of 2008. Leshem’s eyes gleam as he tells me that Peres—who changed his last name from Persky in 1945 when he saw a bearded vulture (peres in Hebrew) fly overhead—said during the announcement that “ornithology is one of the main assets of our small country.”

Leshem’s enthusiasm is the key to his success. “He is one of those people who is all grown up but gets all excited like a kid on Hanukkah,” says Carole G. Vogel, who coauthored the children’s book The Man Who Flies With Birds with Leshem. “It’s fun to work with someone who is excited about his job and not burnt out.”

If something has an avian connection in Israel, then Leshem’s fingerprints can probably be found nearby. This includes everything from bottling limited edition kestrel wine to taking former U.S. President Jimmy Carter bird-watching, an adventure Carter recalls in his memoir. Over the past decade, Leshem has convinced the German airline Lufthansa, whose logo is a crane, to donate a total of $140,000 for satellite transmitters and research for bird tracking. Lufthansa also recently donated $14,400 toward a system for feeding cranes when they stop in the Hula Valley. “We take all matters with cranes very seriously,” says Tal Muscal, Lufthansa’s Israel spokesman. Muscal says this partnership is due to Leshem’s persistence and willingness to think outside the box: “There is no one like him in Israel.”

“The stork in the sky knows its appointed times, and the turtle dove and the swift and the crane observe the time of their coming,” Jeremiah notes in the Bible. But while the ancient Israelites—including the prophet—have paid attention to birds for years, few in modern Israel noticed the vast world of life in the skies. That has changed: Bird-watching is growing in popularity. “Compared to other countries, Israel is far behind,” says Yoav Perlman of the Israeli Ornithological Center. But in the past decade, the number of people donning binoculars to scan the sky for birds has grown exponentially. He describes it as a cultural shift. “Israel is getting more normal,” he says. “The economy is getting better…there is now a middle class and people have spare time for bird-watching.”

For Israel, bird-watching is not just a pleasant pastime but a potential economic windfall. Last year, bird-watchers spent billions of dollars on their hobby. Bird tourism is not new to Israel—in fact, Israel was a top birding destination in the 1980s and 1990s. “In the spring of 2000 there were 20,000 birders who came to Eilat,” says Perlman, “That is 20,000 people staying at hotels, driving cars, eating in restaurants—those were the glory years.”

The Second Intifada may have halted the flow of nature tourists, but the birds are now luring them back. Bird enthusiast Robert Swann, 60, who lives in Northern Scotland, has taken three bird-watching trips to Israel since 2001, two in the past two years. “You can see a vast number of birds in a small space,” says Swann. “There are desert birds that are difficult to see in other places, like the Nubian nightjar and Syrian serin. There are fantastic sites for migration to see vast numbers of birds coming from Europe.”

Bird guide Lior Kislev is busy these days—the week I spoke to him he was spending three days bird-watching with an American family in the Golan Heights, leading an Israeli group for a day trip and guiding a Jewish National Fund nature tour. “Ten years ago there were only a few birders but every year, it is bigger,” says Kislev, who says that the pastime is growing, in part because the Internet has made it easy to find information instantly and connect with other birders.

For Leshem, bird-watching, whether by Israelis or foreign tourists, translates into more funds and attention for Israel’s conservation movement, and projects for his beloved birds. One of his favorites is in the Hula Valley. In the 1990s, after the wetlands were reflooded, the freshwater attracted thousands of cranes that began to eat farmers’ crops. Leshem and others are planting foods like peanuts away from cultivated fields, in areas where cranes can eat. “Now the cranes like to eat peanuts,” says Leshem. “They are like the Israelis; they are very noisy, they like to be together and they eat peanuts and chickpeas.” The cranes now draw thousands of bird lovers to the valley every year. Leshem is currently in the midst of building 15 birding centers throughout the country. Each will be a tourist destination and a station where ornithologists can study and track birds, as well as a place for birds to refuel.

These conservation projects pay dividends beyond Israel’s borders. “By taking responsibility for the birds, Israel is actually protecting the bird population of Europe and parts of Russia,” says SPNI’s Goldflam. “Yossi’s life work goes beyond Israel. It’s important for the entire world.”

Last January, a griffon vulture, tagged with a transmitter labeled Tel Aviv University, touched down in a rural region of Saudi Arabia. The story made headlines when the Saudis accused the Mossad of using the bird as a spy. Israeli officials responded by explaining that the vulture was part of a program that is studying bird migratory patterns and eventually the Saudis relented and released the bird.

As the tale of the griffon vulture demonstrates, birds—unlike the people of the Middle East—are not confined by religion, ideology or even political borders. To Leshem, this means birds can be agents for peace. Leshem tells me several times about a project of which he is especially proud: creating alternatives to pesticides for Palestinian and Israeli farmers. In 1983, Leshem placed 14 barn owls and kestrels in nesting boxes in Sde Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz that was a pioneer of organic farming in Israel. The idea was for these birds of prey to protect crops from rodents without using chemicals. With monetary support from the European Union, the project has been expanded to include Palestinian farmers. “The hardest part was getting Palestinians, who think owls are bad luck, to put them on their farms,” Leshem says. There are now 2,000 nesting boxes in Israel and 200 throughout the Palestinian Authority, with plans to increase that number to 1,000. As a result, fewer pesticides have been needed and there has been increased interaction between Israeli and Palestinian farmers. “We actually use old ammunition boxes and transform them into nesting boxes,” says Leshem. “It is a new twist on the verse from Isaiah, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares.’”

Leshem’s cell phone rings. He looks down and realizes he is late for the two meetings he has scheduled at the same time. But before he rushes off, the bird man makes one last prophecy. “In the past we thought the dove would bring peace to the Middle East,” he says. “But now it will be the barn owl and the kestrel.”

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