Are dead birds beautiful?

October 31, 2013 1:14 pm

Valerie Adelsberger works and lives in Germany. She’s traveled to Malta regularly in order to help at both Raptor and Spring Camps. She reflects on the changes in attitude that have taken place in Malta.

On Malta, watching a flock of rare birds has an air of a nursery rhyme: Seven Black Storks in the sky, one disappears. Six Black Storks, one shot down. Five Black Storks, and counting.

During Spring Watch this year, it was my fifth camp, I saw my first bird get shot down; a Turtle Dove. Somehow, I had managed to come to Malta four times previously without witnessing a bird plummeting out of the sky, which is highly unusual – others arrive and watch an osprey get shot down on their first afternoon. Of course, I had seen many birds getting shot at and many more with gunshot injuries, and somehow the numbers of incoming birds constantly doesn’t match the numbers of outgoing ones. We know what happens whether or not we see it.

A fellow volunteer commented; “Now that you’ve seen your first, they’ll keep coming”. Bit heartless of him to say that, I thought at first, but he was right: from then on, I kept seeing Turtle Dove after Turtle Dove ascending from a tree, then descending with a struggle after being pelted with lead. I still remember every one of them. 

Injured Turtle Dove (2010)
Turtle Doves are a different caliber than Black Storks, obviously. For a start, they’re legally hunt-able, and on a certain level I can make sense of shooting them. I assume they’re tasty. They’re also very beautiful birds while alive. More importantly, their numbers are dwindling in Europe. Currently BirdLife Malta alongside 11 other NGO’s is campaigning for a referendum on spring hunting in Malta. Anyone eligible to vote in Maltese elections can sign the petition calling on the government to hold a referendum. It would force the government to ask the maltase people whether they wish spring hunting to cease. If you are interested, the petition is available to download from this news article.

Killing a species in decline doesn’t make sense, but what makes even less sense is shooting a bird, not despite it being rare, but becauseit’s rare. And then in the best case stuffing it and putting it on a mantlepiece, in the worst case stuffing it under a rock because the specimen was deemed not pretty or special enough, or was maybe nothing but target practice to begin with.

Turtle Dove Decoy. Photo: Lars Soerink

When Malta’s last Jackdaw or Barn Owl or Peregrine Falcon was shot down by a poacher, I do wonder how he felt, though. Was he proud of the honour for getting the last of its kind locally, was the bird like any other, or did he even know?

If he shot Europe’s last Turtle Dove, would it get a special place on the mantlepiece?

A year ago, I was invited to give a talk back home about hunting on Malta, which I wanted to end with a happy story. Everyone knows the situation is grim, so I felt I should show there are rays of light. The story I decided on was about two young flamingos stranded in Salina with gunshot injuries last year; it was about how BirdLife Malta, the remaining volunteers, police, coast guard and local residents all worked together until both birds could be caught and brought to a vet – it was a story about how everyone’s joint efforts saved these two birds’ lives. It was a good story. But both birds died before I could give my presentation.

I was poring over four inches of printed data, but all happy stories had a catch. I needed this not only for my audience: I wanted to read proof that we were making a difference. What I did find was a story of revenge:

In spring 2008, Malta did not open a spring hunting season for the first time thanks to the EU, and as expected the statistic showed a decline in visible gunshot injuries. But it also showed the numbers for the following autumn, which had doubled, and alongside a quote from the FKNK forum: „The birds will pay for this, my friend“. Hunters were killing birds out of spite!
A Black Stork with a dangling leg. It was shot and killed over the area of Buskett;
 a Bird Sanctuary on the 26th September 2013.
Photo: Kim Skelmose
So I guess we did make a difference, after all, though maybe not the one we had been hoping for. Not yet. I was there in autumn 2008, it was my first camp. I remember the air ringing with shots on „good“ days, I remember how we struggled to find a legible way to record their sheer number, and I remember poachers looking at us with disdain and scorn in plain sight, not giving a damn about our presence.

Things sure have changed since then: the poachers are now acting smartly, they’re being secretive about their business. They are well organised and connected. If nothing else, we have managed to show that the biannual atrocities in Malta are not the work of a few renegades, but an organised criminal group that is well aware of their crimes. This may not sound like much, but it is worth something. It’s not yet a happy story, but it’s a beginning.

To support BirdLife Malta’s bird protection camps and other work to end illegal hunting in the Maltese Islands please Join BirdLife Malta

You can also DONATE to help us meet the ever increasing costs of the camps, including the purchasing of essential equipment for monitoring and recording illegalities like shooting at protected birds to support police prosecution of illegal hunters.

Raptor Camp 2013 is being supported by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, who have provided photo/video-scope equipment for use in BirdLife Malta activities to prevent and detect illegal hunting.