By Eli Ashkenazi

On Friday afternoon it happened: The lesser kestrel from the Hatikvah School in Moshav Elyakim laid an egg. Dozens of thrilled onlookers watched and reminded each other about the history of the kestrel family that is about to expand. After the lives of entertainer Shimi Tavori and his four children, or the goings-on at the “Big Brother” house created communities of devoted viewers, now the lives of three families of birds from the north have created a group of devoted viewers, who are following them closely.

The general public can now view the three birds’ nests through a camera lens, and according to Dr. Yossi Leshem, director of the International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, “The viewers are captivated.”

The project, run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel birdwatching center, the center at Latrun and Tel Aviv University, has a Web site: The cameras and microphones are installed in two barn owls’ nests and one lesser kestrels’ nest.

It all started a year ago, when the Moked Emun security company installed cameras and microphones in a barn owls’ nest on the water tower at Kibbutz Tirat Zvi, where a pair of barn owls and five owlets live. According to Leshem, last year 240,000 people watched the owls. This year they were joined by two more families – a pair of owls and their four owlets nesting across from the dining hall at Kibbutz Nir David, and the pair of lesser kestrels in Elyakim near Yokneam.

At the school live eight pairs of lesser kestrels, an endangered species. Persistent viewers will see the incubation and hatching of the egg, and the chick’s development. The infrared cameras broadcast 24 hours a day and enable watching the parents hourly bringing food to their hungry chicks.

The Internet cameras are helping research on the raptors conducted by Liron Elbaz, a student at Tel Aviv University’s zoology department, under the supervision of Leshem and of Motti Charter. Analysis of the camera data shows that the barn owls bring an average of about 11 rodents to the nest every night. Seventy-five percent of their prey is various rodents, 12 percent birds and the rest unidentified. “People get addicted to this,” says Leshem. “They tell me that because of me they don’t get any work done and are mesmerized by the computer screen.”

The surveillance of the owls is part of a national project conducted by the environmental protection and agriculture ministries, SPNI and Tel Aviv University to significantly decrease the use of pesticides. Thus far the initiative has set up 1,840 nesting boxes for barn owls around Israel.

According to Leshem, “Farmers see that the barn owl is an extraordinary hunting machine. People are realizing that this is environmentally-friendly agriculture.”

In the near future cameras will be installed to follow a pair of swallows at the Schiff House on the corner of Herzl and Lilienblum Streets in Tel Aviv. They returned from Africa last week and have laid three eggs, which should hatch after Passover.