Making the skies safer from birds



When an airplane collides with birds, the result can be devastating. The now-famous US Airways emergency landing on the Hudson River was set in motion when the plane struck a flock of Canadian geese. That incident enjoyed a rare happy ending — but now Dr.Yossi Leshem of Tel Aviv University\’s Department of Zoology has developed a digitized system with the ability to track migrating birds in real-time, significantly reducing the threat of a collision.

Adapted from weather radar technology, Dr. Leshem\’s system has been implemented throughout Israel. The system tracks the movements of birds, then reports details of their coming and going, including the height at which they are flying, and which route they are taking. Based on this information, the Israel Air Force (IAF), which funds the research along with Israel’s Ministry of Defence, can alter flight plans accordingly.

With the third and final radar installed in the north of Israel two years ago, a flock can be followed 40 miles into Lebanon, Syria, or Jordan, and the Air Force given a two-hour advanced warning of the arrival of a flock. Since the beginning of the program, there has been a 76 percent drop in collisions — saving $800 million and countless lives since 1984.

Keeping an eye on the sky

Israel, on a flight path between Europe and Africa, is a superhighway of bird migration. Approximately 500 million birds fly through the country\’s airspace twice a year. Before Dr. Leshem’s project began, the Israeli Air Force lost ten aircrafts which collided with birds, and experienced about 75 collisions costing approximately $1 million in damages each, which also resulted in the deaths of three pilots. But for the past 32 years, Dr. Leshem and his fellow researchers have been tracking migrating birds across the skies of Israel to help avoid these costly collisions.

To start tracking migration patterns, the researchers flew motorized gliders from the Egyptian border in the south of Israel to the Lebanese border in the north. This was the first time, Dr. Leshem notes, that drones were employed for a non-military purpose. More recently, the system was updated, providing minute-to-minute updates on the whereabouts of migrating flocks as well as information on migration patterns.

Using weather radar originally designed to identify clouds, the radar can monitor birds as far as 62 miles away. Updates are provided in real time as information is received, says Dr. Leshem, who still serves in the reserves as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force.

Bird-lovers flock to watch migration

Securing the airways has been a project of passion for Dr. Leshem, who is widely acknowledged as Israel’s foremost bird expert. His other projects, often undertaken in collaboration with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, are efforts towards peace, education, and the health of the environment. One such regional effort is a project that helps farmers install nesting boxes for barn owls, providing natural pest control.

Dr. Leshem is also helping develop the region\’s potential for eco-tourism. The millions of birds who pass through the country each year are an opportunity to bring bird-lovers from all over the world to Israel, he says. Along with the Israeli government and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the country\’s oldest and largest environmental organization, Dr. Leshem is building a network of 15 bird watching stations all over the country. In addition to the existing stations in Jerusalem and at the Yarkon River close to the TAU campus, stations will be built in the desert at Sde Boker and the oasis of Ein Gedi adjacent to the Dead Sea, and elsewhere.

\”Israel is well known in the world for history and archaeology, but it is also one of the hot spots for bird migration,\” Dr. Leshem says, issuing an open invitation to the world\’s bird-lovers, including an estimated 46 million bird enthusiasts in the U.S. Open to researchers, school trips, and other visitors, the centers will be a place for scientific study as well as tourism.