The 35th Annual Birding Lecture Day is dedicated to the changes to Israel’s bird populations in the last 130 years, including the somewhat controversial Palestinian sunbird.
By Zafrir Rinat | Dec. 4, 2014

Nature in Israel has seen many upheavals since Jewish immigration began in earnest in 1882. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel will dedicate its 35th Annual Birding Lecture Day, to be held at Tel Aviv University on December 22, to the changes to the country’s bird populations in the last 130 years to these tumults.

Two new books will be launched at the event, both of them in Hebrew. The first, on changes in Israel’s avifauna in the 20th century, was written by ornithologist Uzi Paz and published in coordination with SPNI. The second, on the Palestine sunbird, is by Yoram Yom-Tov, a professor of zoology. Both provide a wealth of information from numerous researchers and studies.

Since the beginning of the Zionist settlement in the region some 130 years ago, large areas of the country were put under cultivation, while forests were planted on about 1 million dunams (250,000 acres). Winter pools and swamps were drained, to be replaced by reservoirs and fish ponds, while large tracts of land areas were developed for residential, industrial and commercial use.

Many bird species were forced to adapt to the loss of habitat and to cope with new threats, such as poisoning and hunters. A number of birds of prey, such as the black vulture and the bearded vulture, became extinct in Israel. Other species found new food sources, which enabled them to survive and even to thrive.

Researchers estimate that in the 20th century the population and distribution of 150 of the 227 bird species that nest in Israel were affected by human activity. The populations of 84 of these species declined, while that of the remainder increased.

In his book Paz focuses in detail on a number of species, including the hoopoe (dukhifat in Hebrew), Israel’s national bird, which has thrived. It once nested mainly in ancient oak trees in the Alonim and Pardes Hannah regions, but the greater availability of food from crops and lawns has led the hoopoe to increase its range, from the Hula Valley in the north to the Negev in the south, as well as its numbers.

Another species that benefited from the changes is the common crane, which often winters in Israel, a stop on its migration route. Once only a few dozen cranes remained in Israel rather than continuing south, but that changed in the wake of expanded corn farming in the Hula Valley. Last year 35,000 cranes wintered in Israel. The spur-winged lapwing has also thrived here. In 1963, just four couples were found nesting in the Carmel coastal plain. Today the bird is widespread in many areas and thousands of couples nest here.

In contrast, other species, like the Nubian Nightjar, lost their natural habitats due to the increase in agricultural areas. Less than 20 couples of this species remain.

The Palestine sunbird, or northern orange-tufted sunbird, is an impressive success story. Once it lived only in the Arava Desert and the Dead Sea valley, but with human settlement and farming came abundant quantities of fruit an nectar-bearing flowers, its main food sources. The sunbird is now common in the coastal plain and the northern Jordan Valley, and has been seen in the Negev and in the Upper Galilee.

The sunbird is probably the most studied bird species in Israel. Scientists find it fascinating due to its complex feeding habits and advanced vocal communication. Yom-Tov says the sunbird can distinguish between the composition and concentration of the various sugars in flowers and fruit and plans its feeding accordingly.

It sings mainly to protect its territory, and at times in different dialects, apparently depending on its distribution.

Dr. Noam Lidar, the Nature and Parks Authority’s chief ecologist, studied the sunbird’s communication. He found that it developed several dialects when it spread to various areas. Yom-Tov writes that these clusters of “song versions reflect the Jewish settlement’s history.”

Apparently the different dialects were intended to help the sunbird to adapt to new environmental conditions. In the village of Yesud Hama’alah alone there are three song versions.

“The sunbird’s English name is the Palestinian sunbird and it’s the Palestinian Authority’s national bird,” writes Yom-Tov in his closing paragraph. “It’s also a Zionist bird, whose distribution and lifestyle were very much affected by the Jewish settlement in the country. But the sunbird doesn’t belong to either of these peoples. Like the Jews and the Arabs, the sunbird is a resident of this land.