|Dr. Yossi Leshem is the Director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at the Tel Aviv University, Israel; Jennifer Peterson is the coordinator of the Middle East Program of the Forest Service, International Programs, Washington Office, Washington, DC; and Christopher Soriano is a specialist for the Middle East Program of the Forest Service, International Programs, Washington Office, Washington, DC.
Each year, half a billion birds make a miraculous journey from breeding grounds in Europe and Asia to wintering grounds in Africa’s Great Rift Valley. People along the way see a variety of winged migrants, including Eurasian cranes, corncrakes, red-footed falcons, spotted eagles, and pelicans. These birds traverse harsh desert landscapes fraught with peril, partly due to increasing pollution, diminishing food and water resources, and changes in vegetative cover. Three northern bald ibis, a highly imperiled species, were recently found dead in Jordan, unintended victims of agricultural pest control.
Partners in the Middle East are working hard to ensure safe passage for these sentinel species. Migratory birds depend on stopover points such as wetlands, protected areas, coastal zones, and water treatment ponds. Even hotel grounds can provide much-needed areas for resting and foraging. Migratory bird conservation can promote peace in the Middle East by bringing people together around shared goals. Through organizations as diverse as Tel Aviv University, the Palestinian Wildlife Society, the Amman Center for Peace and Development, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, farmers have united across the Jordan Valley to share best practices in integrated pest management. Barn owls and kestrels, for example, are now being used for rodent control, with researchers calculating the economic benefits of using barn owl nesting boxes rather than rodenticides in farmfields.
The Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, has joined such international efforts to protect the Great Rift Valley Flyway, drawing on lessons learned in conserving migratory flyways in the Americas. The agency supports initiatives that pair conservation benefits with regional partnerships; for example, Israeli and Egyptian biologists are being trained in bird monitoring techniques at PRBO [Point Reyes Bird Observatory] Conservation Science in California through Forest Service support. The Forest Service has also supported a range of programs in the Middle East to rehabilitate degraded rangelands, promote integrated watershed management practices, and advance holistic approaches to protected area management. Agency specialists link conservation objectives with community development through capacity building, environmental education, and shared best management practices. By conserving the natural resource base and stimulating community and economic development, the Forest Service works with local partners to rehabilitate habitat and mitigate pressures on migratory birds.
Migratory birds are charismatic enough to win support on their own, offering excellent opportunities for economic development through bird-related tourism. In Israel’s Hula Valley, for example, the Forest Service is working with land managers to balance agriculture against bird conservation and ecotourism. Agency specialists are also helping Egypt’s Wadi El Gemal National Park develop recreational programs based on birds, both resident and migratory.
It is commonly said in the Middle East that birds know no boundaries. Information sharing and cooperative conservation programs all along the Great Rift Valley Flyway are critical to restoring habitat, sustaining migratory birds, and promoting ecosystem health. The Forest Service is committed to such international efforts—to promoting bird conservation, cross-cultural dialogue, and economic development throughout the Middle East.