Ornithologist Dr. Motti Charter puts a ladder up against a pole. At the top is one of the nesting boxes that he has installed throughout the fields.
“The mother’s not here, so you can climb up and put the microphone inside,” he said.
Inside, five baby owls are making an extraordinary hissing sound, almost like a vacuum cleaner, to scare off the predators.
When they grow, they will be the predators. Each family of owls will eat between 2,000 and 6,000 mice a year.
Dr. Charter, the scientific coordinator of the project, says the main concept of the project is to decrease pesticide use – mainly rodenticides – pesticides to kill rodents. But rodents are mammals and we are also mammals, thus, making them, by far, the most dangerous pesticides for humans.
Dr. Charter gets his equipment and brings the fledglings down from their box so he can weigh and measure them.
When the project began more than 20 years ago, only one organic farm dared to try it. But it slowly went mainstream. Bow Israel has more than 2,600 nesting boxes. There are fewer mice, less crop damage and much, much less poison.
But all that doesn’t help if your neighbors, a few miles away, still use rodenticides. Charter’s village of Ramon backs right up against the barrier separating Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“Many of our owls, what we call our owls, because they breed here, you know hunt over in the Palestinian Authority or vice-versa,” Charter said. “So it’s very important for us, that we work together in particular here, in such a small place, it’s all the same, including the water system, the rivers.”
Now the project is being extended to the Arab farmers in the Galilee, but they are reluctant because of their superstitions about owls.
Khaled Fukarra, a farmer who grows wheat and olives on the Natufa Valley in Galilee said when he was a boy he was taught that owls bring bad luck and that if an owl hooted, it meant someone would die.
Involving the Arab farmers was the idea of Israeli Arab Ornithologist Dr. Sameh Daraawshe. He said knew he wouldn’t have a chance if he couldn’t overcome these old superstitions, so he began reading up on Islamic religious sources. Daraawshe said he learned that the prophet Mohammed had spoken out in favour of owls and approached Imams in the Galilee.
“So I worked with imams, and some of them began speaking about owls and this project in the mosque and it’s started working,” he said.
The Arab farmers met to paint the nesting boxes they have built. They said they even like owls now and hope the project succeeds.
“My hope now is that no one touches the nesting boxes, that the owls will stop the mice from destroying our crops and that we will eat clean vegetables and food,” said Mashur Murad, a local farmer.
Back at his village, Charter is turning ammunition crates into nesting boxes.
“Even though this is an old ammunition crate, the owls do not know that, and will be more than happy to use it,” he said.
“It is mice without borders, and owls without borders and unfortunately only people with borders.”