Mediterranean song bird slaughter

Prince Charles has drawn attention to the ‘barbaric slaughter’ of song birds which occurs in Cyprus during the migration season (1).  Although blackcaps are a traditional delicacy on Cyprus – where they are known as ambelopoulia – the methods used to trap them, particularly bird liming and mist netting, ensnare huge numbers of other species, including many rare ones.  Whilst this may be a longstanding tradition in countries such as Cyprus and Malta, it is both illegal and harmful.  Both countries are EU members and are therefore obliged to enforce the Birds Directive; whilst all forms of trapping are illegal in these countries, the law is not adequately enforced.  This is unacceptable and illustrates one of the weakness of the EU.  The writer Jonathan Franzen has written eloquently on this subject in an essay (see Link 3) also published in a collection of short ‘stories’ in a book entitled ‘Further Away’ (Jonathan Franzen, 2012).  I strongly recommend reading it for an insight into this activity, which he witnessed first hand. As he describes in this essay, this illegal activity is the preserve of certain unscrupulous characters – Prince Charles makes the claim that “it is big business, run by ‘serious organised criminals’”.  It is also on the increase, with a staggering 2.8 million birds estimated by BirdLife International being on Cyprus alone in 2011 (4).  This is totally unacceptable, and unsustainable (2) at a time when migrant birds are under pressure from a multitude of threats (e.g. declining habitat, intensive farming, increased trapping and shooting, climate change).  Cyprus and Malta are not the only countries engaged in these activities; alarming levels of shooting have been reported from Albania (where many people own guns looted from armories after the fall of Communism) and trapping in Egypt (where trapping is said to have exploded after the Arab Spring).

It is hard for me to understand the mindset of someone who wants to kill songbirds, although it is I understand, deeply rooted in the hunting tradition in some countries. For example, I remember being shocked by the sight of a ‘hunter’ whom I came across on a hillside in Greece (on a Greek Island); he was carrying a shotgun and was dressed in hunting boots and so on, but what shocked me was the row of tiny, colourful songbirds hanging from his belt. Why someone would take pride in shooting a small bird using a shotgun is beyond me, but clearly many people do. Indeed, walking in Greece one comes across hillsides strewn with shotgun cases, like the aftermath of a war; a war against nature. I can understand the bravery and challenge of say trying to kill a lion with a spear (like the Masai do) but there does not seem to be much sport, or even satisfaction, in blasting a small bird out of the air. I am afraid that it is just a perverted sort of machismo in my book. Similarly, the idea that consuming small birds will affect your sexual potency (ambelopoulia are said to be ‘natural viagra’), is as stupid and ignorant as the idea that rhino horn will do the same. Unfortunately, there are worrying parallels between the slaughter of rhinos in Africa and that of songbirds in our own backyard in the Mediterranean: ignorance, superstition, greed and crime.  We just cannot allow this practice to continue.  Many brave people are trying to do something about it in their own countries; there is also a Committee Against Bird Slaughter (5) which deserves support.

1.  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2586928/Stop-barbaric-slaughter-British-songbirds-Prince-Charles-demands-private-letter-head-Army-base-Cyprus.html

2. Raine, André F. Raine (2007). The international impact of hunting and trapping in the Maltese islands. BirdLife Malta.

3. “Emptying the Skies,” The New Yorker, July 26, 2010, p. 48.  http://archives.newyorker.com/?i=2010-07-26#folio=048

4. Bird trapping on the rise in Cyprus – an estimated 2.8 million birds killed in 2011.  http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/news/bird-trapping-rise-cyprus-%E2%80%93-estimated-28-million-birds-killed-2011

5. Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS). http://www.komitee.de/en/homepage

Bocage’s wall lizards turn green when mated

Bocage's Wall Lizard, Podarcis bocagei (male)
Bocage’s Wall Lizard, Podarcis bocagei (male)

Bocage’s Wall Lizard (Podarcis bocagei), is another lizard which is endemic to (only found there in) the northwestern Iberian Peninsula. The adult males and females are sexually dichromatic – meaning that they have different colour patterns! The female lizards have a nice brown back (see photos on link 1), whilst the males have a lovely green back (dorsal side) as shown above. This straightforward dichotomy is however, somewhat complicated by the fact that some females have the same dorsal coloration as males! A study by Pedro Galán at the Universidade da Coruña suggests that the function of this green colour in females is to signal to males that they have fertilised eggs inside (the lovely word ‘gravid’ applies to both ‘pregnant’ lizards and insects); in other words “to avoid harassment and copulation attempts by males following fertilization” (Galán, 2000). Receptive females are brown, but turn green, perhaps to say ‘I want to get on with the business of developing my eggs, I don’t want to be chased any more thank you’! Egg laying takes place between May and July and up to three clutches of eggs can be laid; the baby lizards hatch out between July and September.

These photographs were taken in Galicia on 7th July 2012, so it is possible that the green coloured individuals are not males, but gravid females!  These lizards were sunning themselves (or perhaps defending territories?) on the boardwalk of the Pria (playa or beach) de Morouzos near the coastal town of Ortigueira in Galicia (northwest Spain).

Bocage's Wall Lizard, Podarcis bocagei
Bocage’s Wall Lizard, Podarcis bocagei

1) European Field Herping Community (EFHC) website. http://www.euroherp.com/species/Podarcis_bocagei/?photo=female
2) Pedro Galán and A. H. Price (2000) Females that Imitate Males: Dorsal Coloration Varies with Reproductive Stage in Female Podarcis bocagei (Lacertidae). Copeia: August 2000, Vol. 2000, No. 3, pp. 819-825.
3) Galán, P. 1997. Reproductive ecology of the lacertid lizard Podarcis bocagei. Ecography 20:197–209.

A story

I knocked tentatively on the door.
“Come in, come in” said the voice.
I noticed the faded sign saying ‘GOD’ in large gold lettering.
“Don’t be shy; what can I do for you”?
“Well it’s about a planet called Earth” I said. “We are having some problem at the moment.”
“I see” He said.
“There are lots of planets out there, I can’t remember them all….do you have the serial number?”
“No!” I said.
“It is just called Earth and is located in the Milky Way”.
“The Milky Way!” He said. “Sounds like a chocolate bar!” chuckling.
“Do you have the space co-ordinates then?”
“No” I said “but I have a few photographs of the stars looking out from our planet”.
“Ok, let me see” He said peering at the photos.
“Oh yes, I recognise this, but it is in a pretty obscure area of the universe you know; I haven’t looked at it since, well since we drew up the blueprints! About four and a half billion years ago! It’s been a while!” He said.
“To be honest I delegated this area of the universe to one of my helpers”.
“Send up Angel 313” he said into the intercom whilst pressing a red button.
“Angel 313 will be able to help you”.
There was a knock on the door and a rather slight man, late middle-aged with a pair of bedraggled wings hanging from his back, entered looking a little sheepish.
“Angel 313, this visitor says they have a problem with their planet; do you know anything about it?”
Glancing at the photographs Angel 313 started: “Well, yes I have been keeping an eye on it, but I didn’t want to bother you, there is still a chance that things might get better…” he trailed off.
“I see. What exactly is the problem?”
“Well” said Angel 313 “It’s like this.
“Get on with it” He commanded.
“Well, they got off to a fairly good start, but were a bit unlucky with meteorites; the contractors let quite a lot of debris floating around this galaxy”.
“Did anyone complain?” He thundered. “This is not the first time they have left a mess; why didn’t you tell me?!”
“Well I know how busy you are” mumbled Angel 313 “I didn’t want to bother you!”
“Alright, go on” He commanded again.
“Well” explained Angel 313, growing in confidence, “they evolved some interesting life forms, but as I said, they were a bit unlucky to be hit by large meteorites about five times over the last 500 millions years..”
“Five times in half a billion years? That doesn’t sound too bad; we have had much worse than that!”
“Yes” said Angel 313 “but the timings were unfortunate and they lost some promising life forms. I particularly liked a group we called the dinosaurs. They were very adaptable and had lasted a very long time without doing much damage to the planet. They did a lot of damage to each other though” he chuckled “but that was half the fun!”
“Get to the point!”
“Well after one particularly severe impact by a comet, about 65 million years ago…”
“No long ago then” He interrupted.
“Yes, these poor old dinosaur species died although one particular group with feathers…”
“You like them I’m sure” He beamed.
“Yes the feathered ones carried on and have been doing great things, composing songs, generally minding their own business and cheering everyone up. They were doing great…..until the problem species appeared”.
“That’s us!” I chimed in!
“I see. Well you seem fairly civil” He said. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem” said Angel 313 “is that they are absolutely hopeless at getting along with each other. They started off well, as small furry creatures that no one really took much notice of. But recently…”
“How recent?” He interrupted again.
“About 5 million years” said Angel 313. There was a really remarkable step change in the intelligence and communicative ability of one particular lineage….”
“Primates” I interjected.
“Yes” said Angel 313 “One particular primate which seems to think it owns the planet and is taking up so much room there is little left for all the other creatures” he said breathlessly.
“We had great hopes at first; this one species…”
“Humans” I stated.
“Yes, humans” said Angel 313. “They made some good progress and even managed to create some useful stuff”.
“Show me” He said.
“Well there was this one human called Bach, he created some interesting sound arrangements – here is one”.
“Not bad” He said. “It’s a bit simple but I like it.”
“Another one, called Einstein, made a good stab at trying to describe some of the properties of the universe; here is one of his equations” said Angel 313 holding up a note-book.
“Not quite right is it” He said “but at least it is along the right lines.”
“Yes” said Angel 313 “but they often go off on tangents…”
“Anyway, the problem is that the humans have become very numerous; they dominate the planet and hog all of the resources. It would not be too bad, but they do everything so inefficiently that they are squandering all of the planet’s resources, and many of the other species are getting squeezed out. The problem is that humans are so busy squabbling amongst themselves, that they are in danger of causing a real catastrophe”.
“Some of us realise what is happening” I chimed in “which is why I came to see You!”
“So” he said “when were you going to bring this to my attention Angel 313?”
“Well I was waiting to see whether they managed to wake up and do something about it themselves first” the angel replied.
“We did that before on Planet 0154350-0765-8498, you may recall? And they did a good job of restoring the equilibrium without our intervention”.
“Well you know this planet better than me” He said “what do you recommend Angel 313?”
“Leave it for a while” the Angel said. “We know that the planet bounces back quite well; it has done so at least five times. I would recommend leaving it for say, another 10 million years, and see what happens. If the humans muck it up then there will be another series of catastrophic extinctions, but the survivors will bounce back and evolve again.
“Yes” He said, and we might get a better one next time. “OK Angel 313, I’ll take your advice, but I want you to keep a close eye on things and report back at least every one million years, OK? Please don’t leave it for another 10 million years! I may be busy but I like to know what is going on!”
“Right” He said looking at me. “You have heard what Angel 313 has said. He will keep an eye on your planet. But it is also up to you humans to fix things up as best you can. Go back to Earth and tell your fellows about our meeting. Let them know that I will not intervene for at least another one million years, so you need to look after the Earth by yourselves for a while, and I don’t need to tell you that that means looking after all of the other species as well! And I do mean All of the other species. OK?
“Ok, thank-you I said. I’ll tell them!”

Schreiber’s green lizard – going blue in the face!

Lizard (Lacerta schreiberi)
Lizard (Lacerta schreiberi)

Schreiber’s green lizard (latin name Lacerta schreiberi) is only found in the northwestern part of the Iberian Peninsula: that is in both central/northern Portugal and northwest Spain.  There are also some isolated populations in southern Portugal and Spain which might be refugia (isolated outposts) from a more widespread distribution in the past.  These particular lizards like quite humid areas and so are often found close to steams, but they can occur from sea level up to and above 2000m.  I came across this individual on a sheltered rock, protected by a shrubby gorse habitat, near to the coast at Cabo de Bares in Galicia, NW Spain.  The males have lovely blue throats which are attractive to the females of the species during the breeding season.  The males with the brightest and most intense blue throats (as well as the greatest amount of reflected ultraviolet light) are the most successful in terms of attracting and keeping mates!  The females must really like blue!  But the intensity of the blue colour is a fairly good indication of the health and well-being (e.g. freedom from parasites) of the males (confirming the theory proposed by the late great zoologist, William D. Hamilton), so it is a good way of selecting the best partner to mate with!  How blue is your throat my dear?!

Schreiber's Green Lizard (Lacerta schreiberi)
Schreiber’s Green Lizard (Lacerta schreiberi)

Egid Schreiber was a German herpetologist who wrote a book published in 1912 called: Herpetologia europaea

K Bajer, O Molnár, J Török, G Herczeg (2010). Female European green lizards (Lacerta viridis) prefer males with high ultraviolet throat reflectance. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 64, 2007-2014