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“Take Care, We Share the Air”: Israeli Pilots Co-existing with Migrating Birds

By Randy Pinsky

It was an average day for Israeli fighter pilot Yair Harlev, monitoring the skies near the Dead Sea in 1983, when he noticed something out of the corner of his eye. Suddenly there was a loud explosion and the windshield of his plane shattered. A bird migrating south had crashed into the Skyhawk jet and triggered the ejection handle. Harlev’s life was saved only by his automatic parachute deploying in time.

This was no isolated incident. According to New York Times reporter Thomas L. Friedman, migrating birds have caused more damage to Israeli aircraft than all the Arab air forces combined, largely because Israel is at the juncture point between critical migration routes. On February 15, 2021, the Azrieli Institute hosted Avi Jorisch to discuss Thou Shalt Innovate: How Israeli Ingenuity Repairs the World regarding creative Israeli solutions to contemporary problems. In the chapter, “Balancing Heaven and Earth,” Jorisch examined efforts taken to reduce jet-bird hits, and find ways to ‘Share the Air.’

Bird Watching Central

Tourists to Israel come for the climate, the historical and religious sights - and birdwatching.

Indeed, Israel and Spain are the world’s top two bird destinations as they are situated on parallel latitudes and have a wide variety of habitats. Both are “under one of the biggest migration flyways in the world” on both sides of the Mediterranean sea and thus are visited by thousands of migrating birds twice a year. As the weather turns colder and food supplies start to dwindle, birds start the 5-6,000 mile journey from Europe and Western Asia to Africa, returning in the spring. Israel and Spain are thus vital refueling stopovers (the difference, of course, is that Spain is about 17 times larger than Israel).

A Paradise for Bird Watchers, a Nightmare for Pilots

As noted by Jorisch, Harlev was not the first pilot to crash because of a bird. For decades, buzzards, storks, pelicans and eagles have collided into Israeli planes, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, frequent injury and even loss of life.

Until the 1980s, it was deemed this was merely an uncontrollable risk, an act of nature.

It’s Just a Bird

Many would wonder; how much damage could a couple of small birds possibly do?

For one thing, this is not a case of a handful of birds; rather, more than 500 million birds from 475 different speciesregularly use the airspace, with 600,000 being white storks and 220,000, honey buzzards (like the one that hit Harlev’s jet). Compare these numbers with 460 species in Germany, which is 20 times bigger than Israel.

Secondly, many of the migrating birds are large raptors, pelicans and storks, and thus can inflict enormous damage in a hit. Even a bird of two pounds can have an impact of ten tons of force if it collides with a plane flying 500 miles an hour.

“The concern is that a bird will get sucked into the engine,” said Yaron Cherka, Jewish National Fund chief birdwatcher. “It would be an aviation safety issue par excellence.”

But what could be done?

Many Challenges…and Then an Idea

Aside from the millions of migrating birds, an additional difficulty for the pilots is the bottleneck of a small confined area.

Israel is a tiny country with one of the world’s largest air forces yet little air space, made even smaller when it returned the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in the 1982 peace treaty.

After analyzing jet-bird collisions over the years, it was discovered that the majority took place during the migration seasons; a critical clue. Yossi Leshem, international bird expert and founder and director of Israel’s International Center for the Study of Bird Migration, soon realized that the flight patterns were as predictable as clockwork.

As the birds would not and could not be expected to alter their routes after centuries of habit, the pilots would have to intentionally stagger their flights during the most active times. 

But How?

The problem was that there was very little known about the migration patterns and flight behavior, or even an estimate of the numbers of birds they were contending with.

With the cooperation of Tel Aviv University, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israeli Air Force (IAF), Leshem mobilized over 600 birdwatchers from 17 countries and stationed them along the flight route during the suspected peak seasons. In addition to monitoring and counting them from the ground, they also used small aircraft and motorized gliders (“the only way to understand birds was to fly with them”, he rationalized,) and then with remotely operated drones. They reasoned that the better tendencies of behaviors would be understood, the better accidents could be avoided. 

Slow But Impressive Progress

After years of meticulous documentation, the team was soon able to identify patterns and predict the routes, air corridors, altitudes and timeframes with a fair amount of certainty. Even more startling, it was also found that there were actually four times as many birds that migrated over Israel than had originally been assumed. Leshem presented the research to the IAF as ‘Bird Protected Zones’ that could be refined and activated on specific days and altitudes.

According to Nehemia (Chemi) Peres, former IAF pilot and the son of former Israeli president Shimon Peres z”l[1], the world would be indebted to Leshem as “an army of one in promoting peace between nature and a very advanced world that neglects the environment.

Birds Do Not Recognize Borders

In addition to making the skies safer for Israeli pilots, the project also inspired international efforts for diplomatic collaboration for the shared environmental challenge. As migrating birds do not recognize political boundaries, it was critical that Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories discussed cooperative solutions to such regional environmental problems.

The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies is considered one of the top environmental think tanks in the world and in 2016, was a semifinalist in the UN-supported Hero Award by the Billion Acts of Peace due to its emphasis on Israeli-Arab cooperation. As Arava Deputy Director Eliza Mayo stated, “we…train and educate young adults to go out into the world using the environment as a tool for dialogue, and dialogue as a tool for improving the environment in the region.”

Co-Existing with the Birds

Although there was at first much skepticism about the project, doubters were convinced when the number of bird strikes were found to be reduced by 76%, saving the country $1.3 billion dollars between 1984 and 2002, simply by delaying or shifting the timing of flights. While damage is unavoidable, there has not been a single case of an aircraft crashing due to a collision with a bird in recent years. 

“Take care, we share the air” is the motto of the Israeli Defense Force courses on nature protection and is posted in every Israeli air force base- imagine the potential if this message was applied beyond birds…


[1] In honor of former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ passing in 2016, Leshem shared the story of the former’s name. Originally Szymon Persky, Peres had immigrated from Poland and became involved in an intelligence expedition with the Palmach into the Negev, then a closed military zone. While the group would be arrested and fined heavily, he would change his name to ‘Peres’ in honor of the a nest of bearded vultures (or ‘peres’ in Hebrew) they came across along the route. 

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