Barn Owls Unite Israelis, Jordanians

By BEN WINOGRAD
The Associated Press
Monday, July 16, 2007; 2:26 AM

SHEIK HUSSEIN VILLAGE, Jordan -- For years, Ibrahim Alayyan watched in frustration as rats ravaged the date crop at his lush family farm.

Having no luck with pesticides, the retired Jordanian heart surgeon was only too eager to try a pest control agent widely used in fields just across the Jordan River in Israel _ owls.

"There used to be so many rats," Alayyan said. "But after we put in the owls, thank God, this is the first time we have had a full date harvest."

To the world, the symbol of peace may be a dove, but to farmers on either side of the Jordan, it's Tyto alba, the common barn owl.

Alayyan is one of dozens of Jordanians working in cooperation with Israeli colleagues, targeting rodents with a natural predator instead of with chemicals.

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.


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