May 15, 2005, Updated September 14, 2012

Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem has ideas which are definitely not for the birds – even though they all concern birds. The latest plan of the world-renown naturalist is to move families of barn owls to move into the quieter neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and American cities like San Francisco.

Why barn owls? Through his research which provides habitat for the natural predators of rodents, Leshem plans on disarming the destructive force of the world’s rodent population mouse by mouse, rat by rat.

His pilot project, which provides homes for about forty families of barn owls in Tel Aviv, was initiated to help a rodent problem that Tel Aviv’s feral cat population couldn’t tackle. American cities, like San Francisco and New York City are not immune to rodent infestation – causing significant damages that result from restaurant closures to the transmission of disease.

San Francisco and New York both have barn owl populations, making rodent control by owls a feasible solution for managing pests, says Leshem who is already working with American researchers coast to coast on various environmental and educational programs involving birds: projects funded by sources like the US Agency for International Development which recently contributed $1.5 million to Leshem’s causes.

So far, the owl boxes have been used successfully in Israel, Jordan, and more recently in Malaysia where a clear-cut forest prepared for palm oil trees was infested by millions of rats, says Leshem, a researcher at Tel Aviv University and director of the International Center for the study of Bird Migration, at Latrun.

Rodents, sources indicate, can transmit various diseases to Americans, including food poisoning, rat bite fever, and ringworm. They should not be made welcome around schools, nursing homes, hospitals, restaurants, food storage areas, and people’s homes.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reports that between one fifth and one third of the world’s total food supply never reaches the table due to losses from rodents. The consequences of even a single mouse in a food handling establishment can be serious. Health inspectors in cities like San Francisco shut down significant numbers of restaurants per year from rodent infestation causing financial loss to business and communities.

Owl boxes in rural Israel for over 20 years, have recently gone urban. Last year Eli Cohen, a concerned Tel Aviv resident, called Leshem in a panic. Cohen witnessed a pet dog convulsing to death after swallowing a package of rat poison – an innocuous looking package like this one, can be found scattered throughout the city.

Cohen didn’t want to see something like that happen again.

The Tel Aviv municipality, which gets over eleven thousand complaints a year about rats in yards or mice in homes, has a special unit which deals with rodent control. A typical US city gets about the same number of complaints. In Tel Aviv, small, pink-colored sachets filled with grain and poisons are dispersed to kill the rodents, but end up killing the city?s other animals like pets and birds.

Leshem, a world-renowned naturalist who has a history of dealing with poisoned birds, was the first to come to Cohen’s mind.

Back in the early eighties, Leshem was instrumental in battling poorly planned conservation methods in Israel’s Hula Valley.

After the valley was drained, and local farmers planted alfalfa, it soon became clear to growers that the rodents eating the nutritious crop were making farming efforts redundant. Wide-scale poison was put into use, which killed the rodents, but at the expense of thousands of owls and raptors, which also died.

An incensed Leshem began frantically working with biological control methods to solve the problem. He was met with uncooperative farmers at a local kibbutz and was prompted to talk to Hanoch Pleser from Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit Shean Valley.

Pleser, deeply connected to Torah values, is a gentle soul and a lover of animals. He was more than happy to oblige. Some 20 years later, the barn owl box project at the kibbutz has been a great success.

The kibbutz, who was one of the first to adhere to bio-organic and environmentally-friendly farming practices, is not permitted to use poison in any way on its soil. Today neighboring kibbutzim call Sde Eliyahu for advice. One kibbutz, with a growing rat infestation, called Steve Charter, manager of the date plantation to find out how many rats he had seen.

“What are rats,” laughs Leshem, retelling what Charter had said.

By keeping the owls close to the fields, the kibbutz enjoys a high yield of produce in the form of dates, organic grape juice and vegetables – without poison or pesticides. Also, a webcam is set up for people to watch how barn owls feed, mate, and raise their young.

Unless you are looking for them, very few people will notice the white box, the size of a large picnic cooler, twenty feet into the tree canopy. Hopefully, by next winter, some small pellets of undigested food items will be found scattered on the ground below the box, indicating well-fed owlettes are living inside.

Owls eat their food whole. After some eight hours they vomit up indigestible matter such as hair, teeth, bones and nails. Leshem, who has studied owl pellets extensively, knows that a healthy owl family can consume over two thousand mice and rats a year. Educational programs with nearby schools help schoolchildren learn environmental research hands-on.

Leshem, who has employed one of his students Motti Charter to check the boxes, expects owls to move into them by the end of the summer. Unlike poison, biological control methods do not work at lightning speed, and need time and patience.

Recently, the two discovered that by providing habitat for a local falcon, the common kestrel, a rodent population can be kept at bay in shifts. Unlike the nocturnal owls, kestrels are diurnal and prefer to hunt during the day.

Because boxes can be built by hand, there is no great financial investment, Leshem admits: “Using my years of research, though, is essential,” he told ISRAEL21c.

Within no time, Leshem expects the cities rodent population to be under control, and his barn owl habitat boxes to spread to America. Of course, appreciation may be hard to measure.

“The green environmental benefit is better than green dollars,” he remarks.

Besides starring in German documentary films, saving air force pilots from collisions with buzzards, being a professor at Tel Aviv University, traveling the world and running multi-cultural programs from the US to Jordan, Leshem is convinced that the bird box project is also helping Israelis get a better understanding of their Arabic neighbors.

While owl boxes may be a viable option in the streets of Athens, or downtown San Francisco – asking someone from Amman, Jordan to bring owls to his backyard is like asking a superstitious American to cross the path of a black cat underneath a ladder.

Jordanians call owls bumar and believe that bad luck will ensue for anyone who has one living nearby. Professor Mustafa, who heads the Jordan delegation of 14 farmers that started working with Leshem three years ago, simply suggested to Leshem that he change the bird.

“I told Mustafa that this was the bird doing the job,” Leshem said matter-of-factly while we sped like lightning to his bird center in Latrun. “One really needs to understand one’s partner and culture.”

Given Leshem’s expertise and the scope of his ambassadorial prowess, one shouldn’t be surprised to find this dynamic man playing sweet melodies someday soon in a town near you. But unlike the piper from Hamelin, this man has only good in store.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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