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.