Birds in Israel
Asaf Mayrose and Dan Alon
Israel Ornithological Center,
Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel
The ratio of avian species richness relative to area in Israel is one of the greatest in the world. Over an area of approximately 28,000 km2, 511 different bird species have been recorded during the various seasons of the year (Shirihai 1996). Species richness in Israel is very high and brings to mind species richness in tropical areas.
A number of factors affect avian species richness in Israel:
1. Israel is a bottleneck for migrating Palearctic birds – 283 species pass over the country during both migration seasons. Among these, 50 species are exclusively passage migrants; 127 are both passage migrants and winter visitors (some individuals of the same species migrate through the country while others spend the winter); 106 species are passage migrants and summer visitors or passage migrants and residents. Thus, some of the individuals seen in Israel stay for various lengths of time, while others are resident (Shirihai 1996).
2. Israel – located at a junction of continents and different biogeographic areas – has a variety of biogeographic all of which are represented within a small area. Many Eurasian and Mediterranean species breed in the northern Mediterranean region of Israel, which is their southern and eastern distribution area limit, respectively; Saharo-Arabian and Paleotropic species breed in the desert region in Israel and this is their northern distribution area limit. Asian and Irano-Turanian species breeding in Israel are at the western edge of their distribution area limit.
3. Habitat richness – Israel’s geographic situation on the Mediterranean Sea and at the edge of the global desert belt, along with the presence of the Syrian-African Rift Valley (which provides a northern penetration route for African species) contribute to the variety of habitats found throughout the country. The Rift Valley also resulted in the formation of Mt. Hermon, which is the southern distribution area limit for many Euro-Siberian and Irano-Turanian species (16 species are represented in the northern Golan Heights and Mt. Hermon alone).
Table 1 presents the zoogeographical classification of the breeding birds recorded in Israel: 206 of 511 species found in Israel. Exotic species or those nesting sporadically and randomly are not included. It should be noted that Israel is an important area for many of the remaining non-breeding species as well that spend part of their life cycle here, particularly wintering birds and regular passage migrants.
Table 1. Zoogeographic characterization of breeding birds in Israel:
B. The status of birds in Israel
1. Globally threatened species
International nature conservation organizations (IUCN, BirdLife International) have declared eighteen Israeli bird species globally endangered (Capper & Statterfield 2000). Of these seven species are in high danger categories (EN, VU): white-headed duck, marbled duck, spotted eagle, imperial eagle, corncrake, lesser kestrel and sociable plover. Two of these species breed in Israel (lesser kestrel and marbled duck). Another ten species are categorized “Near Threatened” (NT): pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, white-tailed eagle, black vulture, pallid harrier, little bustard, houbara bustard, great snipe, cinereous bunting and Syrian serin. Four of these species breed in Israel (pygmy cormorant, ferruginous duck, houbara bustard and Syrian serin) and another two have become extinct as breeders (white-tailed eagle and black vulture). The black-winged pratincole, a passage migrant through Israel, is categorized Data Deficient (DD).
2. Regionally threatened species
Data on the status of birds in Israel is presented in table 2. Unlike the global threat category, which considers the population status of each species throughout its global distribution area, the regional threat category relates exclusively to the species’ status in Israel. Thus, the table presents regional threat categories for breeding birds in Israel as we have defined them, bearing in mind the status of the species in Israel alone.
Table 2: The status of breeding birds in Israel (not including exotic species)
* The white-tailed eagle was regionally extinct and is in the process of reintroduction.
Out of the 206 species that once bred in Israel regularly, fifteen do not breed here any more. Most of these species still migrate through or winter in Israel and have been categorized regionally extinct as breeders: “RE – as breeder”. Four species have completely disappeared from Israel or become extremely rare vagrants, and have been categorized RE. One species (white-tailed eagle) became extinct as a breeder and has recently been reintroduced to the wild, but has not yet bred successfully. Other species (e.g. rose-colored starling, Baillon’s crake, lapwing, and others) have been seen breeding in Israel in the past (although not in the last decades), but have not been categorized extinct as there is lack of information on the scope of their nesting in the past, or whether their breeding was always random and sporadic. These species were categorized DD or LC. Thirty-nine species are categorized as highly endangered in Israel (categories CR, EN, VU). This includes those species whose populations are limited in size, or whose available habitat has deteriorated in quality or size, or whose population has decreased drastically during the past decade or decades. Although no quantitative analysis of the probability of these species becoming extinct in Israel has been conducted, all those species that we believe have a high probability of becoming extinct in Israel within the next two decades have been categorized CR. Some of these possibly no longer breed in Israel, but we lack comprehensive information about them from all their breeding areas. Another 56 species are categorized NT, which means their populations are relatively small, have limited distribution or have declined moderately and do not fit the criteria established for critically endangered species. Eighty-two species have been put in the lowest category, LC, since according to existing information their populations are large or have not significantly declined. We do not have sufficient information to assess the population status (past and present) of 14 species, which have been categorized DD.
At least four exotic species (palm dove, ring-necked parakeet, common mynah and Indian house crow) have become established and spread as breeders, and quite a few other cage birds are regularly observed in nature. These species may compete with native birds and affect their populations deleteriously, so it is important to take action to prevent the spread of alien species.
The high number of species categorized as regionally threatened reflects the difficult situation of the Israeli avifauna. Israel is one of the most densely populated countries in the world and its human population growth rate is very high. Development is eating away at natural areas, endangering wildlife and affecting biodiversity. Many species are disappearing or have come under constant pressure, while other species thrive from habitat modification that raises their reproductive rate and their populations grow rapidly. There is, in effect, no natural habitat that is unaffected by some sort of human activity in Israel today.
Israel is a bottleneck into which millions of migrating birds converge each year and it plays a vital role in preserving the biodiversity of the western Palearctic avifauna. The situation of nature conservation in the Middle East is complex, and the area is sometimes a death trap for migrating birds, lending weight to the importance of nature conservation in this country. In view of this, globally threatened species, which winter or migrate through Israel (but do not breed in it) have been included in this chapter.
C. Disturbance and threat factors in Israel
1. Modification and destruction of natural habitats
Accelerated development has had a significant effect on natural habitats in Israel. This change is particularly evident in northern and central Israel and along the Mediterranean coast. The habitats that have been most seriously affected include:
• Wetlands: Large expanses in northern Israel, particularly in the northern valleys and coastal plain were once wetlands, marshes and winter pools. The drainage of the Hula Lake and its surrounding marshes in the 1950s affected avian species drastically. The alteration and destruction of wetlands was directly responsible for the regional extinction of seven breeding species (e.g. grey heron, black tern, great crested grebe and marsh harrier), and for substantial damage to the populations of many breeding and wintering species whose populations decreased considerably, such as: Savi’s warbler, great reed warbler, little ringed plover and Kentish plover.
• Mediterranean woodland: This was the most common habitat in northern and central Israel until the early 20th century, when large tracts of woodland were cut down to make way for development. After the establishment of the State of Israel, large forest expanses were planted (mainly by the Jewish National Fund), most with non-native species such as pine, eucalyptus and white sallow. Natural woodland grew denser with the cessation of tree cutting, decrease in grazing (particularly in the Galilee and Carmel) and the decline in herbivores. As a result, these habitats became more suited to thicket-loving species and less to species of open parkland and garrigue. The species diversity characteristic of natural Mediterranean woodland is not found in dense forests with alien species, woodland, orchards and citrus groves planted by man, some of which are monocultures that are inferior habitats for birds. This has affected the animal species composition in the Mediterranean region and the desert transition region in Israel, leading to a general decreasing trend in the number of native specialist species. The effect of planted forests goes beyond the forest area proper since they attract forest loving species and opportunistic species such as the blackbird, hooded crow and jay. These compete with open habitat species, and their populations grow while exploiting these habitats. Mediterranean woodland species whose populations have been deleteriously affected include: turtle dove, goldfinch and greenfinch.
• Mediterranean scrub and garrigue and desert transition scrub: This habitat once covered extensive areas of the eastern mountains in Judea, Samaria and the Galilee. In the desert transition areas in the Negev, Judea and Samaria, scrubland dominated by prickly burnet was once common. This unique habitat has decreased significantly during the past three decades, mainly as a result of urbanization, growth of populated areas, afforestation, grazing and development. As a result of the expansion of forests and settlements, certain carnivore, omnivore and domestic animal species have increased considerably (e.g. crows, jackals and domestic cats), and they compete with or prey on scrub birds and exclude them. Some of the characteristic species of this habitat whose populations have decreased drastically are: long-billed pipit, cuckoo, spectacled warbler and Upcher’s warbler.
• Loess plains and Negev sands: This habitat, which once covered large areas of the Negev, particularly in its western part, has been extensively affected by farming, planting and military activity. The expansion of inhabited and cultivated areas, and the increase of planting has brought about savannization of the area – it has been transformed from desert to steppe, shifting sand areas have become stabilized, and this has led to the penetration of Mediterranean species which exclude or eliminate the desert species. Large areas in the western Negev suffer from an unbalanced grazing regime when military training grounds are opened to grazing for a short period in the spring. During this time large herds accompanied by dogs converge in the western Negev and have a disastrous effect on birds who are at the peak of their breeding season. Species characteristic of the loess plains and sandy areas, such as: houbara bustard, cream-colored courser, crowned sandgrouse and spotted sandgrouse have decreased drastically.
• The Arava Valley (southern rift valley in Israel), savannas and salt marshes: This habitat includes arid desert landscapes, which contain a number of vital habitats for birds. Intensive modern agriculture, development, settlement and road building in the Arava reduced natural sandy areas, hammadas and salt marshes and led to the drying up of acacia savannas (Peled & Zehavi, pers. comm.). The expansion of settlements and agricultural areas reduces available habitats for specialist desert species and encourages passage migrants to stopover in the Arava that compete with local birds (this effect has not yet been seriously studied). A number of birds characteristic of this habitat are today on the verge of regional extinction: Arabian warbler, hoopoe lark and Nubian nightjar.
2. Pesticide Use
Intensive pesticide use in Israel began during the 1950s. The use of stable (do not decompose after application) and non-selective (harm other non-pest species) pesticides is fatal for many bird species, particularly raptors. The latter were and are harmed mainly by secondary poisoning after consuming prey that feeds directly on the pesticide. This affected wintering populations (that were also affected in Europe during those years), as well as breeding populations. Many raptor species that were once very common (e.g. black kite, Egyptian vulture, griffon vulture, lanner falcon, and others) have almost completely disappeared from Israel, particularly in the Mediterranean region (Mendelssohn 1972). Insectivorous and omnivorous birds such as the bee-eater, blue-cheeked bee-eater, spotted flycatcher, rufous bush robin and rook, were also affected. Some populations of these species recuperated to a certain extent after laws regulating pesticide use were passed (late 1970s), however even in the last decade there have been several cases of mass poisoning (thousands of birds including hundreds of raptors poisoned in the Beth Shea’n Valley in autumn 1997, and over 50 griffon vultures poisoned in the Golan Heights in summer 1998).
Power lines threaten mainly large birds that stand on high power electrical lines, touching two cables when their wings are extended, and are subsequently electrocuted. The species most seriously affected by electrocution in Israel is the griffon vulture – 12-20 electrocutions yearly, particularly in the Golan Heights (Bahat, pers. comm.). Other victims include large migrating birds such as pelicans, cranes and storks. The Israel Electric Company has made an effort to insulate power lines and poles to prevent bird electrocution, which has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of birds injured in this manner.
Hunting had a significant effect on the status of wildlife in Israel mainly in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Birds were hunted for sport, food and for scientific and private collections. Hunting affected mainly large birds such as: ostrich, houbara bustard, chukar, black francolin and birds of prey. Other birds that suffered from hunting were species that were in conflict with the fishing industry: white pelican and pygmy cormorant (Shirihai 1996). Hunting in Israel decreased considerably following the establishment of the state and legislation of wildlife protection laws. The populations of several species (e.g. chukar and houbara bustard) recuperated appreciably during the 1960s and 1970s (Paz 1986). During the past decade, however, hunting in Israel has increased again, particularly illegal hunting by Arab and Druze inhabitants and foreign farm workers. Hunting and nest robbing are usually perpetrated in transition areas by dogs, shooting and manual collection (Nemtzov, Hatzofe and Afariat, pers. comm.), and by foreign farm workers manually and with traps set up in agricultural areas and around settlements (Yom-Tov 2000). The areas most severely affected are the Judean Lowlands, the Galilee and the Gilboa, eastern Judea and Samaria, the Judean Desert Plateau and the western Negev. Sheep dogs are responsible for widespread hunting and disturbance to wildlife (Afariat, pers. comm.). Despite the increase in illegal hunting, the situation in Israel is still far better to that in other countries in the region. Intensive bird hunting in surrounding countries and in the Palestinian Authority necessarily affects Israeli populations as well, and in the last two years there have been a number of cases where raptors breeding in Israel where harmed in the Palestinian Authority (Hatzofe, pers. comm.).
5. Birds hurt by agricultural netting
Netting is used in various fields of agriculture to protect crops from bird damage. Although in some of these cases the nets are not intended to catch birds, the latter are sometimes caught in large numbers. Farmers use two main types of nets: mist nets for trapping passerines in orchards when fruit is ripening and large-mesh nets used to cover orchard trees or fishponds to prevent the approach of birds.
Mist net use can pose a hazard to large numbers of birds, particularly when untrained or irresponsible personnel operate them; and, nets in fishponds harm many birds. Over 300 dead and about 4500 trapped birds were found in a half-year survey carried out in some 100 fishponds in Ma’agan Mikhael and Kefar Ruppin (Nemtzov & Whittaker 2001).
Table 3: Species abundance in different habitats and geographic regions
From the data in Table 3 it is possible to rank habitats essential to the conservation of avian biodiversity in Israel in the following order (descending):
Wetlands – loess flats and Negev sands – desert cliffs – Mt. Hermon – Eastern Negev and Arava – Mediterranean cliffs and mountains – scrub – settlements and cultivated fields – Rift Valley (between Bet She’an and Jericho) – Rift Valley (Dead Sea area).
Recommendations for the preservation of habitats essential for avian biodiversity in Israel:
1. Aquatic habitats: These are habitats of major importance to biodiversity, and it is essential to preserve existing water bodies and enable them to receive a constant, clean water supply throughout the year. Water level stability is of major importance to waterside plant thickets and trees. Good relations with the fishing industry should be developed both to prevent direct harm to water birds and to encourage development of rich bank vegetation around fishponds and reservoirs. The Hula Valley is particularly important as a center for breeding water and shore birds, including a number of species that nest only in this region such as the marbled duck and yellow wagtail. There is a problem with the falling level of water in the Hula Nature Reserve, which could have a deleterious effect on duck and grebe nesting. The newly flooded area north of the reserve – Lake Agmon – is still not a significant duck-nesting site, possibly because of disturbance or a management regime that does not enable waterside thickets to develop.
2. Loess and sands: A diversity of species, many in immediate danger of extinction, is found in the Negev and Arava loess and sand flats. Suitable sites should be located and at least one large nature reserve established in the western Negev. Efforts should also be made to reduce the conflict between livestock grazing and ground nesting birds, and to create permanent watering spots for sandgrouse.
3. Mediterranean and desert cliffs: cliffs are nesting sites for many species, mainly birds of prey whose populations are particularly small and vulnerable. Although most cliff habitats are included in nature reserves, they suffer disturbance from military and hiking activity and many nests are robbed of eggs and chicks. Supervision of these habitats must be intensified to prevent disturbance by aircraft, hikers and other factors.
4. Mt. Hermon: Many species whose southern limit is on Mt. Hermon nest on its higher altitudes (above 1200 meters). Although the area has been declared a nature reserve, large-scale development activities are carried out that affect this unique and sensitive habitat.
5. Eastern Negev and Arava: This area was seriously affected during the last decade by development, agriculture, over pumping and intensive hiking activity. There has been a drastic decrease in the numbers of many bird species. Groundwater balance must be improved to allow acacia recuperation and large nature reserves established for rapidly disappearing species such as the hoopoe lark, Arabian warbler, crowned sandgrouse and Nubian nightjar.
E. Necessary steps for avian conservation
1. Declaring the largest possible nature reserves in areas recommended in the former section, and preventing fragmentation of natural habitats by afforestation and development.
2. Preserving clean water sources and rehabilitating water sources that dried up or became polluted. It is vital to preserve a permanent water level where possible and to allow waterside and thicket vegetation to develop in at least some of the fishponds and reservoirs.
3. Reducing the use of pesticides, particularly insecticides and rodenticides. An official agency must be established to determine agricultural and nature management policy and environmentally friendly cultivation methods. All matters relating to use of pesticides, including risk assessment for different poisons and regulations limiting the use of the more hazardous substances must be unified under one authority.
4. Reducing hunting, particularly illegal hunting, by intensifying enforcement and supervision and by cooperating with farmers.
5. Regulating vehicular and pedestrian traffic and military training in nature reserves, natural areas and military training grounds so as to minimize the harm to wildlife.
6. Continue and expand insulating activity of electrical power lines and poles to prevent avian electrocution.
7. Modifying grazing management in the western Negev to reduce the conflict between grazing and ground nesting birds. This policy should include limitations relating to the number and/or type of dogs accompanying herds.
8. Preventing the introduction and spread of exotic and feral plants and animals to natural habitats.