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.


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.

4. Bird trapping on the rise in Cyprus – an estimated 2.8 million birds killed in 2011.

5. Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS).

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