Where have all the Hoopoes gone? More and more bird species disappear from Jerusalem’s skies and gardens

Nir Hasson Sep. 26, 2021

In January 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin was invited to the inauguration of a magnificent monument in memory of the defenders of Leningrad during World War II. It was quickly put up in the weeks before the presidential visit, at the expense of the dog park in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park. Dog owners protested the move, and the municipality moved the monument to an adjacent area, between the park and the city’s old cemetery.

Until then, it was a semi-natural area in the center of the city. But it quickly joined a series of other development projects on the park’s grounds – the creation of an area for picnics and barbeques, paved bike paths and the planting of new flowers, trees, shrubs and more. In all these areas the thorns and weeds were replaced by manicured lawns with irrigation and lighting systems.

Jerusalem's Sacher Park, last week.
Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Most residents would consider these developments an upgrade of the public space. But for the city’s birds, the changes meant a further erosion of their habitat. Sparrows, bulbuls and titmice are only some of the types of birds that now find the area hostile territory. The cultivation and the pesticides deny them food and shelter, and the picnic tables and food litter that surrounds them encourage invasive and disruptive species that threaten them, among them cats, hooded crows and myna birds.

The phenomenon is not unique to Sacher Park. Young Jerusalemites on their way to school may now encounter crows, myna birds, laughing doves and rose-ringed parakeets, which have replaced the bulbuls, sparrows and titmice that greeted their parents when they walked to school a generation ago. The most significant catalyst for this alarming change in variety is probably the development and cultivation of “neglected” areas, which served as refuges for these birds.

The residents of Anusei Mashhad Street, four kilometers (2.5 miles) south of Sacher Park in the capital’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood, can testify to this. Over the past two years, residents have been experiencing life alongside disruptive birds: Flocks of jackdaws, hooded crows and myna birds have seized control of several trees on the street and have turned life there into a nightmare. “It starts with the fact that cars are being damaged – the acidity of the bird droppings dissolves the paint – and it continues with the extremely loud and vocal wake-up that we get every morning at 4 A.M.” says Itzik Hayat, a resident of the street.

Disappearing nesting species

As proof, videos taken by residents are reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Birds.” Dozens of jackdaws gather for the night with screeching that’s downright intimidating. Under pressure from residents, the municipality has started to cover the trees with large nets to prevent the birds – which constitute an environmental hazard – from landing there.

Over the past few days Hayat has launched a project of his own: disturbing the birds’ evening rest by banging on the tree trunks. He claims that the experiment has been working, as it has reduced the morning noise level.

Experts don’t know why Anusei Mashhad Street was targeted by the birds. It could be that the way the buildings are distributed along the street combined with the relatively old trees there created the right conditions for the birds to shelter and maintain their body heat.

According to Amir Balaban, the urban nature coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the rather strange rule of thumb in Israel is that flocks of disruptive birds tend to congregate on Herzl Street – no matter which city it is. “That’s because it’s the oldest boulevard in the city that generally runs from north to south [making the wind patterns more comfortable] and it has relatively large trees,” he says.

After pressure on the municipality, the trees on Anusei Mashhad Street in Jerusalem's Armon Hanatziv neighborhood are now covered with nets to prevent birds from landing on them.
After pressure on the municipality, the trees on Anusei Mashhad Street in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood are now covered with nets to prevent birds from landing on them.Credit: Emil Salman

Disappearing species

Near Sacher Park is the SPNI’s Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory, which opened in 1994. It’s a small plot of nature that includes a pool, two structures and a garden full of flora that isn’t artificially watered. These conditions were enough to turn the place into a refuge for dozens of bird species.

Since it opened, more than 200,000 birds have been caught and banded at the observatory’s Ariel station, enabling their movements to be tracked. This has made the station a good index for gauging the natural conditions in the center of the capital. Over the past few years, in particular this past summer, observatory workers have noticed some worrisome signs. The station caught some 80 house sparrows during every banding season between 2005 and 2014, a statistic that made this species one of the most easily identifiable in Jerusalem’s public spaces. This year, however, only five sparrows were caught.

The situation isn’t much better for the bulbuls; this year only 29 bulbuls were caught, the lowest number since 2008. Blackbirds also set a negative record, with only four of them caught during July. Greenfinches joined them, with only nine of them caught during that month.

A hooded crows in Sacher Park, last week.
A hooded crows in Sacher Park, last week.Credit: Emil Salman
A picnic area in Jerusalem's Sacher Park, last week.
A picnic area in Jerusalem’s Sacher Park, last week.Credit: Emil Salman

Longtime observatory workers, who are following these developments with concern, still remember species that have totally disappeared, like the European turtle dove and the lesser kestrel, which had been one of the city’s symbols. They say that there is almost no remaining trace of the European goldfinch or the Eurasian hoopoe in the city center, either. The poor condition of the nesting species is only exacerbated when compared to the way the transient species are flourishing. Some species, like the Western Orphean warbler, the lesser whitethroat, the hippolais and the leaf warbler – all of which visited the station in large numbers this year – apparently haven’t been affected by what has been happening in the city’s open spaces.

Balaban, who founded the bird observatory along with birdwatching expert Dr. Gideon Perlman, stressed that when it comes to cultivating the city’s open spaces, the keyword is moderation.

The retreat of local birds from Sacher park
vThe retreat of local birds from Sacher park
The retreat of local birds from Sacher parkCredit:

“If you want people to see nice things – fountains, flower gardens, planters, lawns and lighting – that’s legitimate, but the problem is the dosage,” Balaban says. “When you turn a natural area into something engineered you are reducing its ability to cope with environmental challenges, like runoff or urban temperatures. Instead of absorbing pollutants, it emits them, because you are spraying and fertilizing. Pesticides harm the vegetation, which harms the insects, and this harms the songbirds that eat them. Whoever makes lawns a priority is giving priority to myna birds and crows.”

So why does the municipality insist on taking action that undermines the city’s biological diversity? Balaban believes that decision-makers have a hard time marketing a field of thistles as a cultivated, cared-for area when residents see it as an eyesore. He and his fellow birdwatchers seek to rethink these areas, giving as an example the “green roof” that is atop the bird observatory: In the winter it’s green, in the spring it blooms in a variety of colors, but at this time of year it looks dried up and pathetic, except for a few squills.

The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory in Jerusalem. The sign reads: Research area.
The Nili and David Jerusalem Bird Observatory in Jerusalem. The sign reads: Research area.Credit: Emil Salman

“If you take a typical person he’ll say, ‘it’s desolate here.’ But look – here it’s yellow and here it’s gray and here it’s brown. I understand it’s hard to market this, but if we want to hear greenfinches and goldfinches and woodpeckers, we have to use the vegetation that they need, otherwise they won’t be here,” Balaban stresses.

The Jerusalem municipality is actually quite proud of its outline plan for urban nature spots, which includes 151 natural lands in the city that require special attention when approving plans for them. The city even employs a municipal ecologist for this purpose, and insists that it acts “to assure the ecological balance.”

Invasive and disruptive species

In its response, the city said that this activity includes “Dealing with disruptive species; approving a master plan and outline plan for urban nature; advancing an urban nature survey whose recommendations are incorporated to the degree possible in the relevant plans; promoting an extensive ecological survey in the Valley of the Cross, which includes planning and management guidance with the aim of preserving and cultivating this urban nature site; and conducting a survey of trees throughout Jerusalem in accordance with the municipal policy of emphasizing tree planting wherever possible, along with planting flowers and cultivating public spaces.”