Monday, July 16, 2007

Owls and kestrels bringing Jews and Arabs together

Interesting and hopeful story from the Middle East: Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians confer on using owls and kestrels to control rats in date orchards.

[AP Video here]

The effort still faces suspicions and superstitions, but organizers hope the message of their partial success will spread to Lebanon, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, and demonstrate the fruits of the 1994 peace treaty that ended a 46-year state of war between Israel and Jordan.

Political benefits aside, the project is driven foremost by environmental concerns.

In the late 1970s, chemicals killed hundreds of birds in northern Israel, said Yossi Leshem, an Israeli ornithologist and director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration.

So Leshem persuaded Sde Eliyahu, a kibbutz south of the Sea of Galilee, to try owls, which can eat up to 10 rodents a day. All the farmers needed was to build boxes where the birds could mate and raise their young.

"I put up 14 barn owl boxes, and everybody laughed at me," said Shauli Aviel, who oversees the effort at the collective farm.

A few years later, Sde Eliyahu's rat problem had vanished, he said. More than 60 nesting boxes now sit on the grounds of the kibbutz, and the technique has caught on with other farmers along the Jordan.

Yet as the owl population grew, the birds increasingly began flying - and looking to nest - across the nearby border with Jordan, where pesticide use remains rampant. Chemicals seeped into the water table, and owls were poisoned by eating contaminated rodents.

Then came the peace treaty, Israelis and Jordanians got used to being good neighbors, and in late 2002 Aviel and fellow Israeli farmers planned a regional conference on barn owls to explain their advantages to colleagues across the Jordan River.

The response was discouraging. Many Arabs consider owls the same way others view black cats - as bad luck. Word came back to the Israelis that no Jordanians would attend.

So the organizers changed the title of the conference to focus on organic farming, and two dozen Jordanians turned up. Midway through the gathering they were given a demonstration on owls, and soon Jordanian farmers were asking how they could attract owls to their fields, Aviel said.

With funding from the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, Ohio, the kibbutz gave the Jordanians advice and building materials. More than three dozen nesting boxes have since been put up in Jordan, organizers said.

Someday the Arab nations will stop thinking of Israel as an embarrassing reminder of past failures and will start thinking of it as a source for useful knowledge and technology -- in other words, a good neighbor. That is, if the world's Islamofascist fanatics don't succeed in annihilating Israel first.

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