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Different flight paths benefit birds, jets: expert

Israeli ornithologist in town

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Barn owls can act as a pesticide-free means to protect crops from rodents.

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Barn owls can act as a pesticide-free means to protect crops from rodents.

Imagine if birds could be saved from possible extinction just by flying airplanes on an altered schedule.

Dr. Yossi Leshem, a renowned ornithologist, made this happen in his home country of Israel. He will be in Manitoba this weekend as a guest of the Jewish National Fund of Canada, to talk about this and other conservation innovations based on his 38 years of research.

Through Leshem's work with the Israeli air force, there has been a 76 per cent reduction in collisions of birds with aircraft since 1984.

He said Israel is located at the junction of three continents -- Europe, Asia and Africa -- and includes the Great Rift Valley, which is a corridor for over 500 million migrating birds two times every year.

"It's one billion birds every year, so the air force has had many collisions with the birds. In our research, we were able to find when are they coming, what height, what route, and they stopped flying there," said Leshem in a telephone interview. "We succeeded to reduce the collisions by 76 per cent and saved them (the Israeli air force) over one billion dollars."

He agreed with recent numbers released by the U.K.-based BirdLife International that one in eight bird species are considered threatened, which means there are 200 types of bird on the brink of extinction.

"We are all part of the global situation, which is not really good," he said. "Some of the species, it's too late. For others, there are so few remaining, the chances are very low. Some can be saved by protecting the habitat."

Leshem noted birds of prey, such as barn owls, can be protected and put to work as natural pest controllers.

In Israel, the use of pesticides to kill rodents has caused many birds to become threatened, killing the predators when they ingest the chemical-filled vermin. Leshem initiated a program promoting barn owls as natural pest controllers, reducing the amount of expensive, potent and potentially dangerous chemicals being used on crops.

Barn owl nesting boxes erected in seven main agricultural regions in Israel resulted in the raptors growing in number, reducing crop loss due to vermin.

"One pair of owls will feed on 2,000 to 6,000 rodents, so where they had the barn owls, they stopped using pesticides," Leshem said, noting barn owls are also being used in Palestinian and Jordanian agriculture. "The same techniques can be done in Canada."

The 2012 Manitoba Nocturnal Owl Survey overseen by Dr. James R. Duncan, who is the director of the wildlife branch of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship, noted there are at least 11 owl species in Manitoba.

Leshem also developed a program called Birding as a Path to Peace in which Arab and Jewish children in over 250 schools in Israel come together to watch birds over the Internet that are tracked by transmitters. The program has been running for 20 years.

"When they (the children) grow up, they will be caretakers and be more sensitive about their own environment around their homes," Leshem said.

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2013 A15

History

Updated on Friday, June 28, 2013 at 2:42 PM CDT: Corrects name of organization.

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