06/19/2013 05:53 EDT | Updated 08/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Birds of a Feather Making Peace Together

Twice every year like clockwork, half a billion birds of 280 different species fly through Israel on their way to and from Africa, Asia, and Europe. The Holy Land is eclipsed as the sky is filled with birds from three continents. Although many marvel at this sight, what few understand is how these birds provide opportunities for peace in the Middle East.

Migratory birds know no boundaries. They cross thousands of kilometres without regard to national borders and are equally at home in one country as the next. For these reasons, they are our best diplomats. Over my 40-year career as one of Israel's leading bird experts, I have personally seen enemies turned into friends in a region rife with conflict all because of the flight of a single bird.

This week at the BirdLife International World Congress, over 400 experts, dignitaries, politicians, and business leaders from over 120 countries descended on Ottawa. Together, we pushed ahead on ways to protect birds, conserve their habitats and enhance biodiversity. I was proud to represent Israel, along with my colleague Dan Alon, to network and work with our global partners including our regional neighbours in the Middle East. With the former Jordanian Environment Minister, Khaled Irani, as the chair, BirdLife is an international network of more than 3.5 million members who, like migrating birds, ignore political boundaries to achieve the same objective: sustainability and environmental protection.

For six years, I had the pleasure of seeing this phenomenon in action through a regional cooperation project on bird-watching and tracking. At the same time that Israel was facing terror attacks, Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian schoolchildren were connected by following 120 German White Storks as they migrated through the region. The roots of this project trace back to a meeting in Bethlehem with Imad Atrash, the Director of the Palestine Wildlife Society, where we outlined our vision for cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

With funding from USAID, everything came together quickly and more partners came onboard including 30 Jordanian schools under the auspices of the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature led by Khaled Irani--the very same person who now heads BirdLife International. Our project combined education, research, and environmental conservation as a bridge to bring Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews together. By tracking the storks both virtually and through joint field trips, we connected children who never would have met and allowed them to forge lasting bonds.

Now we lead together another inspiring project of using Barn Owls and Kestrels as pest control agents. Over 3,000 nesting boxes are located in the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Israel with hundreds of farmers involved and the possibility of more regional partners. This serves as another shining example of birds creating "people-to-people" connections.

It is only fitting that I visit Canada to share these experiences with my colleagues and the public. In a country that invented peacekeeping, Canadians understand what it takes to bring people together. Through unique ways, such as the study of birds, nations can overcome barriers and people can find common bonds. Despite the many skeptics and the trend towards boycotts, my experience fuels my optimism. It is my hope to find partners here in Canada that can help build on this work. Birds are truly our best diplomats and we need them now more than ever.

Dr. Yossi Leshem is a senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's zoology department. On June 26 (7PM), he will give a public lecture at the Northern District Public Library in Toronto sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel.


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