Birdman of Israel

Unless you are Israeli, or a keen bird-watcher, you have probably never heard of him. But not only is he legendary as the Birdman of Israel, Yossi Leshem has also quietly saved lives. 

After serving in the Israeli Air Force, Yossi, a bird enthusiast, set up a field school in Har Gilo, a neighborhood in the south of Jerusalem. He went on to become the director of the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature where he developed the necessary means that would ensure the conservation of the rare Bonelli’s eagle and the frankly less attractive, Lappet-faced vulture. Thanks to his studies, these rare birds of prey are once again breeding safely and securely in Israel.  

But it is not just the lives of birds he has saved. Yossi has saved the lives of pilots. 

When Israel withdrew from Sinai in 1982, Israeli airspace needed for Air Force exercises, shrunk substantially. But what did not shrink, was the 500 million birds flying through Israel’s skies twice a year on their way to and from Europe and Africa. These one billion feathered friends flying in a more crowded Israeli airspace collided into plane engines. This brought down 9 military planes, caused 75 accidents (with costs incurred of half a million dollars each),  and thousands more accidents of various relative costs. Most tragically of all, birds flying into plane engines caused the death of three 3 pilots.

To enable safe passage for both bird and man alike, Yossi Leshem set up a research team. His team was a combination of ornithologists, the Israeli Air Force, Tel Aviv University, the Israel Society for the Protection of Nature and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Space. 

For 270 days he went up in a glider to map the routes and altitudes of the various bird species migrating through Israel’s skies. UAV’s (Unmanned aerial vehicle) and radar detection were also his tools.  The result was a successful surveillance used to alert the Air Force of the oncoming feathered army. The success of the mission saw a 76% reduction in collisions, over $730 million saved, and no loss of human life.

The mapping not only points to the enterprise of Yossi Leshem, who is the well-deserved recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award for Environmental Protection, it also speaks volumes about the ingenuity of birds. Like people, birds too are creatures of habit. Just as we leave at a particular time to go to work, and take a certain train or bus, birds (metaphorically) do too. Like someone heading to the office day in and day out, the birds choose the same route, the same altitude and same flying speed.

Another Leshem project that caused many to marvel at the wonders of creation involved storks. These large birds fly over Israel twice a year in such vast numbers they often block out the sun. Using satellite-tuned transmitters, Yossi  tracked a pair. Released in Germany, the male stork traveled to Spain while his female partner, flew via Israel to South Africa. 

Nine months later, the birds returned to their original European nest. Arriving first, the male prepared the home for his beloved who followed shortly after. For nine years these two extraordinary birds set off on their different paths, but without fail came back to find each other among hundreds of thousands of their friends to nest together again. 

Leshem also used birds as a natural form of pest control, rodents who chomp their way through valuable crops. On different farmland, he set up around 2,000 nesting boxes for kestrels and owls. The kestrels do the “day shift,” and the owls take the night. The non-chemical pest control did not damage the crops and the plenty of available rodent delicacies spiked a growth in the population of these treasured birds.