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Professor Yossi Leshem, the director of Israel's International Center for the Study of Bird Migration at Latrun, is all fired up over the momentum his latest bird-related project is gaining. Under his leadership, a major campaign to finally choose a national bird for the State of Israel is underway. Prime-time television news programs and other mainstream media channels have been publicizing the campaign, which is being bundled as a key part of the country's upcoming 60th birthday celebrations, and Leshem has just left a meeting with Minister of Environmental Protection Gideon Ezra and Minister of Education Yuli Tamir, where both pledged significant support for the project.
But as far as Leshem is concerned, the hoopla is just the bait. "For us, the national bird is mainly to get people involved with birds and to learn about them and the importance of protecting them," says the Tel Aviv University faculty member and Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel leader.
Located on the land mass that joins Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is known around the world as a birdwatcher's heaven. 500 million birds from 540 species can be seen in Israel every year - the most of any country per capita. To put that in perspective, 470 species can be seen in Germany, but that country is about 17 times the size of Israel. "We are at the junction of three continents. From a political perspective, it's a disaster. For bird lovers, it's great," Leshem quips.
At a December 2007 convention of bird enthusiasts, the 20th annual event of its kind, 1000 cast their ballots in the primaries, and the ten candidate species with the most votes are now nominees for the final elections, with polls open until Independence Day approaches. Anyone can vote by visiting the Hebrew-language website www.teva.org.il and clicking on the image of the bird in the middle of the screen.
According to Leshem, young people are key to the success of the campaign. "The youth are the main target," he says. "They get excited about things and take them seriously. Adults learn about something and then just forget about it." Amir Balaban, co-founder and director of the Jerusalem Bird Observatory, Israel's first-ever urban wildlife sanctuary, agrees. "They can get excited about nature - it's a critical age. When they get older and cynical, things change. So it's a key time for environmental education."
To mobilize the nation's teens, the national bird campaign has printed and distributed some 200,000 posters with photos and facts on each bird. Four million units of special-edition Elite chocolates include packaging with photos of the various nominees. Bird education workshops are set to begin in every educational institution, and closer to Pessah time, ballot boxes will be placed in every school, day-care center and army base.
The 10 nominees were chosen for their looks, habits, calls and other criteria, but of course, many of them can be seen as symbolic of the Israeli character. The Graceful Warbler, for example, is small and cute, and its Hebrew name, Pashosh, has become a term of endearment in Israeli slang. The Griffin Vulture is mentioned many times in the bible. The Yellow-vented Bulbul is aggressive but is gregarious and family-oriented.
Balaban is lobbying hard for a Bulbul victory, since this species doubles as the symbol of his Jerusalem Bird Observatory, and it's a city dweller, native to the capital. However, he is quick to note that many are reluctant to vote for the Bulbul, as its name is also a nickname for the human male's reproductive organ. Leshem, on the other hand, claims to have no predictions on who will win, and he refuses to reveal his own preference, so as not to influence votes.
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