Birdsong has inspired poets and many others for centuries. But technological innovations, some very recent, are contributing to the death of ”hundreds of millions of songbirds and larger migrants,” with many perishing as they make their way through northeastern Africa and Egypt, as novelist Jonathan Franzen writes in National Geographic.
A traditional method used in Cyprus to catch the songbird ambelopoulia (to be cooked into a traditional Cypriot “delicacy“) is lime-stick trapping, in which a sticky substance, bird lime, is spread on sticks that are placed amid tree branches. Shotguns, including even old Kalashnikovs, are being used as well as mist nets made from netting so fine they are virtually invisible to birds. Huge nets are strung on poles 11 feet or more above the ground and, writes Franzen, they “now cover the entire Egyptian Mediterranean coast” and stretch for 50 miles in north Sinai.
More hunters are also equipped with MP3 files of recorded bird song and other forms of playback technology. One system, Bird Sound, contains recordings of hundreds of different bird songs. While it is illegal to use such technologies for hunting in the European Union, Franzen notes that it is “nevertheless sold in stores with no questions asked.”
As a result of these old and new methods, a frightening amount of golden orioles, turtledoves, warblers and many more songbirds, weary from migrating long distances by the time they reach the beaches of Egypt or Albania, are being slaughtered. After speaking to an Egyptian farmer in a coastal town, Franzen estimates that “every year between August 25 and September 25, his operation removes 600 orioles, 250 turtledoves, 200 hoopoes, and 4,500 smaller birds from the air.” While some birds are caught to be eaten or sold by farmers to supplement their incomes, many are also killed simply for sport by young, wealthy men with not much else to do or by tourists, glad to take advantage of countries with laxer hunting laws.
Dramatic Decline in Songbird Population in Europe
Across Europe, the songbird population is in decline. In the past three decades, the number of long-distance migrants in the African-European flyway has fallen by over 40 percent. Franzen implies that the unregulated killing of birds in some parts of Europe, northern Africa and around the Mediterranean is more than likely a factor.
The European Union does have “theoretical constraints” on the killing of migratory birds. Under its 1979 Birds Directive, EU member states must protect all European bird species and preserve sufficient habitat for them. Public opinion in EU nations favors conservation and many efforts are underway to ring migrating birds to better count their numbers and track their movements and get a better idea of their numbers.
Hunting on a wide scale is not the only threat to migrating birds. Many are water birds whose habitat, wetlands, is itself highly threatened. Soaring birds, including large-bodied birds of prey, have a special technique of gliding between areas of rising hot air on their long-distance flight. Since this method cannot be used over large bodies of water or high mountains, the birds are severely limited in their routes and must seek out certain geographic corridors; they are therefore highly susceptible to localized threats. Drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011 delayed the birds’ migration to their breeding grounds in Europe as the birds could not find enough food to power the rest of their journey.
What Good are Laws Protecting Songbirds When No One Enforces Them?
While hunting the ambelopoulia and songbirds has been illegal since the seventies, ten million were killed on Cyprus (an EU member) and other Mediterranean islands as recently as 2010. Albania has forestry officials charged with protecting wildlife and natural resources but, says Franzen, neither do they necessarily work nor are they paid in the formerly communist country whose per capita income is among the lowest in the EU.
Similarly, while Egypt is a signatory to various international agreements about bird hunting, efforts to enforce these do not seem at all in place. With the fate of thousands of songbirds in the balance, resentment of Western colonialism and “meddling” by foreign powers has led to Egyptian officials being ambivalent about following through on such regulations, at a time of ongoing economic crisis and political instability.
There is hope. Across the border from Albania, the presence of one ranger (provided by a nonprofit, the Center for Protection and Research of Birds in Montenegro) has helped to keep away hunters and poachers, and hosts of birds — waders, ducks — can be seen. Environmental education and efforts to increase foreign tourism are pushing Albania to take measures to protect migrating birds.
Hunting of Songbirds: A Cultural Tradition Gone Very Awry?
As Franzen wrote in 2010 about the illegal hunting of songbirds in Cyprus and Malta, the issue of hunting songbirds often presented as one of tradition and culture versus conservation: people have been hunting birds for centuries and what right does an outsider have to tell them not to?
It is an argument recalling those used to justify bullfighting in Spain and France on the basis that it is a cultural tradition. But it completely overlooks the abuse, and the pain and suffering, caused to the bulls, all for the entertainment of the audience. Saying that songbirds can be killed because such has been a long-standing practice is an equally flawed perspective that also overlooks the damage caused to wildlife, to the birds who have been making the transcontinental migration for centuries.
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