The team at the laboratory of Dr. Orr Spiegel at Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology is mobilizing in partnership with the National Nature and Parks Authority to conserve Israel’s critically endangered hawk population.
Falcons are not only regarded as majestic animals, but also as “cleansers of nature” who, among other things, free open spaces from carcasses of large animals. If they are missing, the ecological balance is disturbed, which can be harmful for other animal species and even for humans. This year alone in Israel, more than ten specimens have died of various causes, and the curve is only increasing.
A regional problem
In collaboration with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, members of Prof. Orr Spiegel (Dr. Nili Anglister, Dr. Marta Acacio and PhD student Gideon Vaadia) fight for each falcon. They recently released 64 of them into the wild as part of the National Falcons Project.
The laboratory, which studies the connection between social behavior and movements in wild animals, provides the authority with real-time information on every movement of the birds thanks to around 130 transmitters attached to them. “Thanks to these transmitters we can know the location of the animals and, using artificial intelligence, analyze other data such as their activity, the places where they landed to sleep or eat and for how long, measuring the acceleration of their flight and the route, that they have taken in a certain period of time,” explains Dr. Mirror.
Thanks to broadcasters, we already know that falcon incursions are commonplace in Jordan. Some of them even make regular trips to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, or across the Red Sea to Sudan and Chad. So the problem of extinction is really regional. Thanks to machine learning techniques put into practice in collaboration with the University’s DATA SCIENCE center, it is possible to process the information coming from the transmitters and, among other things, to define areas where there is a high risk of the presence of poisoned carcasses. .
As soon as the transmitters of Dr. Mirrors receive a signal that a hawk has landed, a message is sent to the Telegram group of project members, and an inspector from the Nature and Parks Authority immediately visits the sites to inspect the carcass next to the bird that landed. It seems like a Sisyphus job, but it turns out it works.
The lifespan of the transmitter can reach three years (“sometimes longer than the falcon it was attached to,” comments Dr. Spiegel bitterly) if not dropped or damaged. Every few months, “special operations” take place to capture animals, plant transmitters, and release them into the wild.
“We’ve changed nature, so we don’t have the privilege of ignoring the problem”
To protect the Israeli falcons, feeding stations managed and operated by the Nature and Parks Authority have been set up in the areas where they live in the north and south of the country. These are huge cages into which the carcasses of large animals are placed, which have been carefully checked to ensure they are not poisoned or contain any drugs that could harm the birds. “Eagles feed on large carrion. They look for them mainly in grazing areas, where poisoned animals are often found. It can be intentional poisoning when a farmer uses poison to protect his flocks from stray dogs or wolves, or even accidental poisoning when, for example, a sick animal is medicated and dies, leaving its carcass unprotected. The hawk finds her, but her stomach cannot break down and digest the medicine in the cow’s body, which poisons her,” says Dr. Mirror.
“We changed nature; we therefore do not have the privilege of ignoring the problem. Historically, herbivorous wildlife grazed these fields and were an important part of the diet of birds of prey. Today the fields are farmed, most of which serve as food for the livestock, which the falcons presumably feed on today. And these feeding cages are our opportunity to offer them something much better.”
A mortality rate that is higher than the reproduction rate
Hawks know the locations of stations, land there, and “pass the information” on to other birds as part of their social communication. Catches are made at these feeding stations for control purposes and for transmitter placement. Dozens of hawks arrive at the scene in a matter of days, then the hours-long process begins: teams of inspectors and researchers quickly replace wing tags that help identify specimens and transmitters that allow tracking to be carried out. Blood samples are also taken on this occasion to get an idea of the state of health of the birds, all of which are released on the same day; and the chase begins again.
according to dr Mirrors in Israel almost every month or two an eagle or two die from poisoning. In addition to the Nature Agency’s Falcons project, in which the lab is a part, other attempts are being made to conserve locally threatened species in Israel, including importing falcons from Europe and observing their release into the wild, and developing breeding grounds in the Judean Desert, in the Gamla Reserve and Mount Carmel. But the mortality rate is always higher than the reproduction rate. It is understood that in the wild, a pair of eagles raises one chick per year. If it survives, the chick will become sexually mature at the age of 5 and then start incubating, and if all goes well it will live to be 20-25 years old.
The Nature and Parks Authority’s falcon project, in which Dr. Spiegel and other organizations involved is a good example of how science, data collection and analysis and conservation agencies can interact. but ultimately dr. Spiegel is not optimistic about the future of these large birds of prey in Israel: “We fight for honor. The hawk population is declining and we are trying to slow it down enough to fix all other issues before it’s too late. Unless there is a massive shift in awareness of the harm caused by poisoning and in the area of law enforcement and punishment, I fear we will not succeed,” he concludes.
- dr Orr Spiegel and Dr. Nili Anglister during the release of Eagles in the (Credit: Tovale Solomon)
- Release of an eagle in the region of the Negev mountains. (Image credit: Tovale Solomon)
- Dead eagles after being poisoned in the Golan Heights by Nature and Parks Authority inspectors. (Photo: Nature and Park Administration)