The Worst Place to Be a Bird

This is a bird "hide." It's a blind in the Gozitan fields, where a hunter sits and waits for songbirds. These hides have dotted the Maltese countryside for centuries - they're part of the country's culture in a unique and peculiar way. They're also illegal. Most of them are now abandoned, but this one was definitely still in use. There we found a sun-faded office chair, a burlap "door" and wires stretching out to carefully laid "clap traps." On the board attached to the roof was a mirror, so that the hunter could see someone coming. We took pictures and left as quickly as we could - Maltese people do not like foreigners messing with their tradition.
It's estimated that, of the five billion birds that migrate between Europe and Africa annually, one fifth are killed or caught by hunters. That's a billion birds every year.
Malta sits at a crucial point both for migratory birds (in real space) and hunting law in the EU. Bird hunting in Europe is heavily regulated because of how serious the risk is to the winged populations of the continent. Already, most species of songbirds in Europe have been severely depleted - some (like the Song Thrush) have seen their numbers halved in a decade. Some of the problem is, of course, habitat change, and there are other factors at work, but the biggest one is likely hunting. Because these islands sit at such a perfect point on the migratory lane between continents, birds had always been plentiful in Malta, especially in the spring and fall. Now, even here, the numbers are dwindling.
Above, a small private collection of hunting paraphernalia.
A few years ago, I read a fascinating article in the New Yorker about European bird hunting, written by Jonathan Franzen. So interesting that I remembered a good deal of it, the piece specifically detailed bird trapping and shooting in Cyprus and Malta, two of the worst hotbeds for poaching (It's a great article, and you should read the whole thing - it's been reprinted by the Telegraph). We never saw any evidence of anything fishy while we were in Cyprus, though I was looking out for it, and so I began to suspect that maybe international pressure had begun to work.
In Malta, we first saw hides when we were visiting the Ħaġar Qim complex of ancient temples. A sign pointed them out, calling them "ancient" blinds, now disused. At the Museum of Natural History, we saw a dusty old display (shown above) about how binoculars and observation had replaced the shotgun and net. When Malta joined the EU in 2004, it was required to sign on to laws that prohibit most hunting - outwardly, the Maltese try to display piety.
Yesterday, walking through a built up village, I saw a young man scanning the sky with binoculars. It's likely he was watching for birds, but unlikely that he was bird watching. Spent shotgun shells litter the Maltese countryside. You cannot walk more than a quarter mile in the fields - I am not exaggerating - without coming across hides. Gunfire is far from rare. Hunting didn't stop with EU regulation. It's just illegal now.
In the beginning, the people of these islands hunted birds to survive. The seas were dangerous because of piracy, so fishing activity was limited. Water was scarce, agriculture was difficult. People ate rabbit and birds - namely pigeons and songbirds, which were species that stopped by the archipelago on their way between continents. Before the shotgun, it was impossible to hunt birds that didn't land.
Today, unlike in Cyprus and Italy, most of the hunting on Malta isn't done for food. Taxidermy is oddly popular, with many families trying to complete a full ornithological collection (this merlin we found in the Natural History Museum). But indiscriminate shooting is also a distressingly common problem, and often birds are simply left or buried. Limesticks, essentially twigs covered in glue, are rare here, because they tend to damage plumage or the bird. And Maltese hunters want their songbirds live. That's why they prefer traps - and why they've gotten so good at setting them.
This is the clap trap that we found near Dwejra, Gozo. It's difficult to see in the picture (not easy to see on foot either, until you're right next to it), but there are two long, rectangular nets set parallel to one another. When wires are pulled, the trap flops over itself, catching any birds in the middle. Live birds used to be used as lures, set out in cages to call others, but recorded birdsong is much more common now, and much more efficient.
We were actually quite nervous when we found this - even when there was clearly nobody around. In 2006, a conservationist was shot in the face and three BirdLife Malta (an anti-trapping group) vehicles were set on fire. The Maltese haven't embraced this particular part of EU membership.
Above, another hide, near Xlendi. This one was possibly still in use, though the traps weren't set out when we poked around.
The birds that are caught are mostly kept as pets, the hunting groups will tell you, or maybe sold for a small profit - something to give the rural farmers a little much-needed extra income. But this misstates the problem. Often, birds are caught indiscriminately, and unwanted species simply killed or left to die. And even if birds are caught and caged, a large percentage of them die quickly anyway. Wild birds don't do very well in captivity.
It's hard to say that another culture's traditions are wrong, and I'm certainly not against hunting in general, but it's sad to see this kind of needless killing and trapping. In fact, I'd be much more likely to give the Maltese a pass if they were eating the birds, like the Cypriots and Italians do. And even wanton, unnecessary sport hunting can be defended on some merits (the Maltese hunters associations call it a hobby, which is perfectly valid) if Europe wasn't coming so dangerously close to the extinction of so many of its songbirds.
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