Vulture Saudis Nabbed Was Third Israeli Bird Held Since 1975

Courtesy of the Nature and Park Authority

The Middle East seethes with suspicion and conspiracy theories on all sides. So it's not surprising that getting busted by Arab authorities is an occupational hazard for birds tracked by Israeli ornithologists.

Last week, Saudi authorities examined a Griffon vulture caught by an amateur, which local media had surmised was sent by the Israeli Mossad by virtue of its satellite tracking device, commonly used in research. (Here is an English-language article in the Saudi Arab News that claims the device raises "many questions.") Now, after much online mockery, officials have decided to release the bird.

Israeli ornithologist Yossi Leshem says the incident is the third such arrest (so to speak) of a bird tracked by Israeli scientists in 3 decades.

In the late 1970s, Leshem says, Sudanese authorities detained an Egyptian Vulture tracked by Israeli scientists, and in the early 1980s, a tracked White Pelican was caught in the same country. "It's not a huge problem, but it happens. This is the Middle East," says Leshem, of Tel Aviv University in Israel. A team of scientists from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem led by Ran Nathan put the device on the bird.

Leshem says more than 60,000 birds are tagged by amateur bird watchers and professionals in Israel every year, but only a few hundred are fitted with radio receivers, which can be tracked by satellite. Bird scientists often get additional information from amateur bird watchers who capture birds. The amateurs record info from bands, along with coloring and nesting behavior and other data. Then they release the birds and send their notes to national birdwatching institutions (a la Audubon in the United States). "There is a lot of information you can collect as a scientist from a big network of amateurs," says the ornithologist, who estimates that researchers in Israel receive about 40 such reports each year.

In the case of the suspect vulture, a few weeks ago Leshem received word of the bird's capture by an amateur bird watcher in Saudi Arabia, who turned it over to local Saudi authorities. After word spread on Arab newspapers and blogs of the bird's alleged role in espionage, he said, it was unclear whether authorities would release the bird. Thousands of news articles later, however, Prince Bandar bin Saud al-Saud dismissed yesterday the idea that the device was a spying device, and authorities plan to release the vulture and mail the device back to Israel, Leshem says. But not putting the device back on the bird, he says, is a "shame" because the data from the tracked birds is valuable. Only 300 griffon vultures are thought to reside in Israel, down from an estimated 1000 a generation ago.

But birds need not be a source of acrimony in the Middle East, says Leshem. He notes a number of collaborative bird studies by Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian scientists and a recent project to use barn owls to catch rodents on Israeli and Palestinian farm.

*This item has been corrected, 18 January. The original item said the bird was tagged and tracked by Yossi Leshem; Ran Nathan at Hebrew University of Jersusalem led the team that tracked it. Also, the word transmitter, while accurate, was confusing and replaced with device.