Migrating songbirds at risk from hunting in Mediterranean

Songbirds like this female blackpoll warbler, which may be seen migrating through our area in a week or two, would not be spared in Mediterranean hunting practices. / Photo courtesy of Steve Golliday

Songbirds like this female blackpoll warbler, which may be seen migrating through our area in a week or two, would not be spared in Mediterranean hunting practices. / Photo courtesy of Steve Golliday

At this point in August, the birds are fairly quiet. No stunning choruses at dawn or dusk. Breeding finished, the season’s young look almost like their parents, if a little scruffy and naïve. But we know that in a couple of weeks, activity will pick up as songbird migration begins, with warblers and vireos rushing in from the north. Shorebirds are already on the move; you might see them wherever there is shallow water and exposed shoreline.

Americans treat migration as an awe-inspiring spectacle, and take for granted that migratory birds are protected, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Imagine if, instead of flocking to Atlantic or Gulf Coast migration hotspots with binoculars and high-tech cameras, waiting for tired birds to make landfall after long water crossings, we instead went with guns, nets and glue traps to capture as many birds as possible. Incredibly, that is currently happening to birds migrating across the Mediterranean between Europe and Africa.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen, also an impassioned birder, has investigated the indiscriminate songbird slaughter occurring throughout the Mediterranean. In July’s National Geographic, and in an NPR interview, “The ‘Uncool’ Passion of Jonathan Franzen” (available online), he describes what is likely unfathomable to most Westerners: each year, hundreds of millions of songbirds and larger birds are taken for food, trade and sport, contributing to a massive decline in European bird populations.

The killing of birds for extra sustenance has long occurred, but increased technology such as netting that covers entire trees and illegal playback recordings to lure birds has raised the death toll. Increasingly vulnerable from more insidious threats such as habitat loss, many bird populations can no longer sustain this direct stress, much of it on the commercial scale.

The legal status of hunting activity doesn’t necessarily change the reality. In Italy, France, and Cyprus, farmers sell songbirds to restaurants as delicacies, sometimes off-menu and illegally. Young Albanians express their freedom by shooting birds, a pastime formerly forbidden under totalitarian rule. Italians travel to Albania, where enforcement of hunting regulations is lax and difficult.

Franzen visited a lush national park on Albania’s Balkan coast, a crucial wetland stopover for birds, to find it empty of birds; he joined young Bedouins at Egyptian desert oases, where they might each shoot 50 orioles a day at one spot. Much of the Egyptian coast, where laws are nearly nonexistent, is rigged with netting, the birds sold in coastal town markets. Franzen is discouraged by cultural attitudes that see no difference between catching birds and catching fish, and ponders the “arbitrary ethical line we’ve drawn” in assigning charisma to birds.

Indeed, even in the United States, where bird hunting is highly regulated, we can see the arbitrary nature of what is deemed OK to hunt, and the influence of tradition. Most would cringe at the idea of hunting warblers, most don’t think twice about hunting turkeys or pheasants, but many other hunted birds such as ducks, rails, or sandhill cranes are also highly sought by birdwatchers. Twenty million mourning doves are shot in 39 states annually, and though not legal in New York, the DEC explains, there is little demand to change the laws because there is no tradition of hunting doves in the state.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service classifies many species — swans, ducks, rails, cranes, plovers, sandpipers and doves — as migratory game birds, but says that “in actuality, (it) has determined that hunting is appropriate only for those species for which there is a long tradition of hunting. … It is inconceivable, for example, that we will ever see legalized hunting of plovers, curlews, or the many other species of shorebirds whose populations were devastated by market gunners in the last decades of the 19th century.”

Before we condemn Mediterranean cultures’ “long tradition of hunting,” we should remember these mistakes of our own past, such as the plume trade that decimated egrets and herons. I recently read an account of the indiscriminate slaughter of seabirds on Laysan Island in 1909, in which one Max Schlemmer assembled a crew, sailed from Honolulu, and worked for months collecting wings and skins, until a biologist got wind of it and the U.S. Navy was dispatched. He had brutally killed 300,000 seabirds and had clearly intended to strip the entire island of birds.

That is an extreme case, but many participated in the indiscriminate slaughter of the passenger pigeon. Gene Stratton-Porter, an early naturalist and writer, describes flocks so numerous that they’d break the branches off their roosting trees. In her Indiana childhood in the 1870s, it was common for men to search out these trees, “then half-a-dozen men would flash the lanterns (to) blind the birds, and with the clubs others would beat the birds from the limbs, strike them down and gather them up by the bagfull.”

One hopes that the Mediterranean region can catch up to evolved Western thinking in time. Franzen found some encouragement in his travels: Albanian hunters growing worried about the birds, hunters who became birders, stunning bird presence with simple law enforcement, the interest Bedouin hunters took in his field guide.

“It’s not that long a step from the culture of hunting to the culture of merely looking or shooting with a camera,” he says.


With birds on the low end of cycle, opportunities for Grouse hunters scarce

Ruffed grouse are Minnesota's most popular game bird, but the state population is on the low end of the cycle for the upcoming season. / Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Ruffed grouse are Minnesota’s most popular game bird, but the state population is on the low end of the cycle for the upcoming season. / Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The Department of Natural Resources has monitored the ruffed grouse population in Minnesota for more than 60 years. Part of that process involves driving established routes in the forested region and counting the number of male grouse heard drumming each spring.

Those drumming counts are used as an indicator of the ruffed grouse breeding population, which tends to rise and fall on a 10-year cycle. Results from this year’s survey showed that drumming counts were down for the second consecutive year and that ruffed grouse numbers are likely at the low end of that natural cycle.

In the northeast, which is considered the state’s premier ruffed grouse range, drumming counts dropped from 1.1 to 0.9 per stop. Counts in the northwest dipped from 0.9 last spring to 0.7 drums per stop this year, while drumming counts showed little change from a year ago in the central hardwoods and southeast with an average of 0.9 and 0.4 drums per stop, respectively.

According to Charlotte Roy, DNR grouse biologist, the decrease in drumming counts this spring was not unexpected since the ruffed grouse population is still in the declining phase of its cyclical pattern.

“We’re near or at the bottom of the cycle and I don’t think there’s anything to worry about,” Roy said. “Historically, you can see that it takes three or four years to rebound so it wasn’t surprising to see the counts down this year.”

Counts vary from about 0.8 drums per stop in years when grouse abundance is low and as high as 1.9 drums per stop when the grouse population is up. Drumming counts spiked last in the spring of 2009.

The peak of spring drumming efforts usually occurs somewhere during the first few days in May. The median date this year was later, around May 10, likely the result of lagging cold and snow in the state’s core ruffed grouse range.

Roy pointed out that she asked DNR officials and volunteers that were counting drums across the 117 surveyed routes to do so when they thought drumming was at its peak. Most of them indicated that drumming peaked later than usual.

“Counts would have been lower if we wouldn’t have focused efforts later than usual,” she said.

Since drumming occurred later this spring, ruffed grouse likely nested later than normal as well.

Although it’s nearly impossible to tell for sure, that delayed nesting might have been good for the survival of chicks since they avoided the rain and cold in May.

Roy is hoping those young grouse escaped major mortality because the number of birds present in the fall doesn’t just depend on the adult grouse counted in the drumming survey.

It also involves nesting success and chick survival during the spring and summer.

“Later nesting would have pushed the hatch out a bit, hopefully beyond the spring rains,” Roy said. “Time will tell if that occurred and the impact on production.”

Tom Rusch is the DNR area wildlife manager in Tower.

Located in the northeast part of the state, his work area provides some of the best grouse habitat and hunting opportunities Minnesota offers.

He also says it’s “real tough” to determine how grouse production and chick survival was during this time of year. He’s seen three broods of young grouse so far this summer, but noted that he couldn’t draw any conclusions based on those sightings.

He also pointed out that it continues to be extremely wet in the northeast part of the state so it’s been difficult to get out and spot grouse.

He says he’ll have a better idea on grouse production success after August 1 when work crews begin mowing hunter walking trails in areas that provide quality grouse cover.

From a hunting perspective this fall, Rusch expects a season much like last year.

He said grouse hunting in his region wasn’t like it was two or three years ago, but it was still pretty good and he expects it to be again this fall despite another decline in drumming counts this spring.

“It’s a drumming male grouse survey and the weather was so goofy there could have been a little variability this year with the count,” he said. “But even in some of those supposedly down years like 2012, you’ll still get into pockets of birds.”

During an average hunting season, 115,000 hunters shoot 545,000 ruffed grouse in Minnesota.

It remains the state’s most popular game bird and Minnesota continues to be one of the nation’s top ruffed grouse hunting destinations.

In the peak years of 1971 and 1989, hunters shot more than one million ruffed grouse. Historically, hunter participation and harvest has fluctuated up or down with the 10-year population cycle, although that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

Roy said that hunter numbers were higher during the 2006, 2007, 2010, and 2011 seasons than they were at the peak of the population cycle in 2009.

The ruffed grouse harvest also was higher in 2010 and 2011 than it was at the 2009 peak. In 2009, hunters shot nearly 358,000 grouse and during both 2010 and 2011, hunters shot over 400,000 birds.

Sharptail grouse counts also drop
The DNR also conducts an annual sharp-tailed grouse population assessment each spring. Observers look for male sharptails displaying on traditional mating areas, referred to as leks or dancing grounds.

In the northwest part of the state, which is the bird’s primary range, sharptail counts were nearly identical to last year. But counts in the east-central region declined significantly from 2012.

Despite several years of declining numbers, this year’s statewide average of 9.2 grouse counted per dancing ground was comparable to long-term averages dating back to 1980. Over the past 25 years, the sharp-tailed grouse index has been as low as seven birds per dancing ground, but was as high as 13.6 as recently as 2009.

In contrast to ruffed grouse, which are blessed with an abundance of quality habitat, sharptail declines have believed to be related directly to a noticeable loss of suitable habitat such as open brush land that they need to thrive.

In recent years, the DNR has increased prescribed burning and tree removal efforts in order to maintain and improve sharptail habitat. But the work is costly and difficult to do on a large scale.

“There’s been a lot of landscape changes and it takes a lot of management actions,” Roy said. “The burning and mowing of trees that overtakes the sharptail habitat is really intensive work.”

The ruffed grouse season runs from Sept. 14 through Jan. 1, 2014 and the sharp-tailed grouse season is open from Sept. 14 through Nov. 30.



Extending hunting curfew will save more birds

Curfew prevents illegal hunters from using the cover of the open hunting season to target protected birds of prey.

Birds of prey are still the most targeted group of protected birds in Malta, sought after primarily for taxidermy.

Birds of prey are still the most targeted group of protected birds in Malta, sought after primarily for taxidermy.

BirdLife Malta said today that extending the two-week afternoon hunting curfew in autumn would be one of the best ways to save more birds of prey from illegal hunting.

The curfew prohibits hunting after 3 p.m. during the peak period for raptor (bird of prey) migration – between 15 and 30 September – and was introduced five years ago to prevent illegal hunters from using the cover of the open hunting season to target protected birds of prey as they search for roosting sites in the afternoon.

During a recent meeting of the Ornis Committee, which advises the government on bird conservation and hunting and trapping issues, BirdLife proposed an extension of the existing curfew by one week to cover the first week of October, citing evidence of increased illegal hunting of birds of prey in the afternoon during this period last year.

Explaining the need for an extension of the curfew, Nicholas Barbara, BirdLife Malta’s Conservation Manager, said: “Many birds of prey and other protected birds are still migrating in the first week of October, but they are not protected by the current curfew. Extending the curfew to cover this period would go a long way to better protecting these birds in practice, not just on paper.”

Last autumn, BirdLife Malta and CABS separately and independently recorded a threefold increase in the targeting of protected birds during the afternoon period following the lifting of the afternoon curfew on 1 October, when compared with the preceding two weeks, during which the curfew was in place.

The Ornis Committee voted down proposals by the FKNK (Federation of Hunters, Trappers and Conservationists) to remove the afternoon curfew altogether- a proposal BirdLife Malta said belied the hunting organisation’s public concern over the problem of illegal hunting, betraying their self-interested lack of concern for the considerations of wildlife protection and conservation.

The Committee did not reach consensus on other proposals put forward on the timing of the curfew, including a proposal to have the curfew pushed back to as late as 7 p.m.

“In practice, pushing the curfew back to 7 p.m. from 3 p.m. would be the same as removing it altogether, something the Ornis Committee already voted against,” said Barbara, pointing out that the vast majority of migrating raptors would already have roosted well before sunset and a curfew introduced at this time would do nothing to protect them.

Barbara expressed serious concerns about suggestions by a government representative at the Ornis meeting that increased enforcement could make up for the removal of the curfew: “Despite efforts at curtailing abuse, birds of prey are still the most targeted group of protected birds in Malta, sought after primarily for taxidermy. Increased enforcement would be best used as a measure on top of the afternoon curfew, not instead of it, giving police in the countryside a much better chance of identifying and apprehending those illegal hunters determined on shooting protected birds.”

Commenting on the proposals to Ornis, BirdLife’s executive director, Steve Micklewright, said: “Removing or pushing back the time of the afternoon curfew would be tantamount to saying ‘we are happy for more protected birds to be shot and killed by illegal hunters’. Well, we are not happy with that prospect.”

“The onus is now on the government to take a decision that reflects their zero-tolerance policy towards wildlife crime”, he said.

Source: Maltatoday.com.mt

CABS publish video evidence of poaching

A total of more than 590 contraventions of hunting and nature protection legislation were recorded by the 20 international Bird Guards.

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) today published comprehensive video material and initial data on poaching during the spring hunting season as registered by its volunteers participating in Operation Skyfall that ended on Monday. Continue reading

Police investigate mass slaughter of protected birds

It is alleged hundreds of endangered and protected bird species, including freckled ducks, were killed.| ABC News: Peta Carlyon

It is alleged hundreds of endangered and protected bird species, including freckled ducks, were killed.| ABC News: Peta Carlyon

Police have been called in to investigate the killing of hundreds of ducks and birds, including protected species, on a private property in Victoria’s north-west.

The bodies of about 760 game ducks and 155 non-game birds were left on the water at the Box Flat flood plains near Boort.

The shooting happened on the opening weekend of the duck hunting season just over a week ago.

Opponents of the duck-hunting season have described the deaths as “a massive slaughter”.

The incident occurred in the Swan Hill electorate of the Minister for Agriculture and Food Security, Peter Walsh.

Mr Walsh says the wetland has been shut down for the remainder of the season.

“The Department of Primary Industries (DPI), with assistance from Victoria Police, is investigating the matter and intend to prosecute those responsible,” he said.

“Under Victoria’s duck hunting regulations, it is an offence to take more than the daily bag limit of ducks and to shoot protected species.

“Hunting of game in Victoria is strictly controlled and heavy penalties apply to hunters who contravene the regulations.”

A spokesman for the Coalition Against Duck Hunting, Laurie Levy, has renewed calls for the annual duck hunt to be banned.

He is calling on the Government to make the results of the investigation public.

“We were told by the DPI they were conducting an investigation with the police to find out who the hunters were,” Mr Levy said.

“But information we’ve been told is that the full extent of the slaughter that took place on the opening weekend will never be made known.”

Outside Treasury Place in Melbourne, the Coalition laid what it says were 40 freckled ducks and dozens of other carcasses it said its members collected from the wetlands at the weekend.

Mr Levy says environmental safeguards on the shooting of water-birds during duck-hunting season are inadequate since the DPI took over responsibility for the duck-shooting season from the Department of Sustainability and Environment.

“Especially with the DPI sacking a lot of its staff, closing offices, there’s nobody out there policing the shooters,” he said.

Mr Walsh rejected the claim.

“Any suggestion this matter is not being investigated appropriately is without foundation and rejected,” he said.

“Likewise, making unsubstantiated allegations against DPI staff is an unjustified attack on the professional individuals and the department.”

Meanwhile the Department of Primary Industries says authorities seized the gun of one hunter at the wetlands, who shot in excess of his daily bag limit of 10 birds.

The hunter will be charged on summons.

There are 25,000 licensed duck hunters in Victoria and the 12-week hunting season ends on June 10.


Guardian of birds

A farmer has been protecting migratory birds around Dongting Lake for almost 30years.
He tells Liu Xiangrui he is atoning for his misdeeds, having killed thousands ofbirds when he was a young man.

Zhang rows a boat on Dongting Lake, on his mission to prevent wild birds from being poached and trapped. (China Photo Press/Tong Di)

Zhang rows a boat on Dongting Lake, on his mission to prevent wild birds from being poached and trapped. (China Photo Press/Tong Di)

Zhang Houyi has taken it upon himself to protect migratory birds around Dongting Lakein Yueyang, Hunan province, for the last 27 years.

Often seen in his tall boots and an axe in hand, the farmer patrols the banks of the lakealmost daily, rain or shine. Sometimes the 73-year-old has to wade through thick reedfields to cut the nets used to trap the birds.

“Birds are friends of human beings, and this is the only way I can atone for the wrongsI’ve done when I was young,” says Zhang with a smile that further accentuates thewrinkles on his face.

His strong stand against bird hunting and poaching has made the devoted guardian ofbirds well-known in the lake area. It is hard to imagine him as a celebrated bird huntingchampion in the past.

He learned hunting skills from his father at 16, using a previously popular black-powderrifle, which was primitive and dangerous. Zhang used to hunt birds whenever he wasfree from farm work and even earned the nickname “marksman” from the locals.

Zhang admits that then, he enjoyed shooting birds and it was his natural instinct to aimhis rifle at the fowls whenever he spotted them.

He was so good a shooter that he was invited to work for a State-owned farm and latereven head its hunting team in 1967.

Zhang was paid 29.3 yuan ($4.67) a month, a considerably good salary compared withfarming. He shot 700 birds on average weekly.

More than 250 migratory species stop by the Dongting Lake region annually, includingat least 16 globally threatened species. Most of the birds the employees hunted werewild geese or ducks, mainly for their feathers, which can be used as clothing material. [english.peopledaily.com.cn]