Dispatches from the front of the bird migration

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Gábor Deák with Falco, the anti-poisoning sniffer dog © Szilard Morvai  / BirdLife Hungary

With the photojournalist David Guttenfelder He covered the 2013 songbird slaughter in the Mediterranean for National Geographic and said it was like reporting on a war. Every year over 25 million birds are illegally killed when they fly in northern European waves over the Mediterranean and the Caucasus. Like war, it is a tragic manifestation of how we humans are capable of the most senseless destruction. Fortunately, however, humans are also capable of love, bravery, and altruism. BirdLife partners demonstrate this through the extraordinary job they do every day to protect our feathered friends.

Launched in this magazine two years ago, Flight for Survival is an international awareness campaign aimed at ending the illegal killing crisis. To date, it has had more than 128,000 unique visitors to its website and millions of impressions on social media. The campaign highlights the many dangers to which migratory birds are exposed and also helps to raise money for the critical nature conservation work of our local partners. Here’s a snapshot of their work – just a few lovely stories about humanity at its best.

No more callers: Civic engagement combats Malta’s illegal murder

Mark Sultana, CEO of BirdLife Malta

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Malta, in the middle of the Mediterranean, is an important stopover for migratory birds. Unfortunately, illegal killing of birds is a widespread problem here, even for protected species. But at BirdLife Malta we are taking action.

In 2019, BirdLife Malta launched #NoMoreCallers: a human-powered campaign to combat the illegal use of electronic bird callers, which mobilizes citizens to report such devices across the country. A birdcaller can be anything from a small handheld device to a complicated system of car batteries, a digital gaming device, and speakers. They are often hidden in stone walls, attached to mud skins, or even screwed into concrete structures, making them difficult to remove. Callers lure birds to trapping sites spread across the countryside in Malta and Gozo. They are widely used to catch Eurasian golden plover, Pluvialis apricaria, and other protected birds.

#NoMoreCallers was a complete success with an extraordinary response from the public: During the entire campaign, we received over 600 reports with details and GPS coordinates. The large number of reports enabled us to re-insist both the local government and the European Commission that Malta does not control this illegality. One has to keep in mind that the illegality of electronic callers is mainly related to interception. Catching is not allowed under the EU Birds Directive, but Malta grants exemptions and tries to justify this as a traditional pastime. We will continue to insist that none of the exceptions applied by Malta are justified.

The number of reports has shown that the use of electronic bait is widespread in the Maltese archipelago. However, the public’s commitment to this campaign has proven otherwise: there is a strong movement to protect birds in our society.

Sniffing poison: How dogs save birds in Hungary

Gábor Deák, Head of the Dog Unit, BirdLife Hungary

Falco finds a dead imperial eagle © Gábor Deák

If you wander around in Hungary, You don’t have to worry about getting caught in vast webs of fog with songbirds. You won’t see birds trapped in glue sticks either. Storks don’t have to worry about bullets. Illegal killing in Hungary is much less obvious. It is quiet. Discreet. Vicious. But just as deadly. The name of the killer? Poison.

The situation is dire, but at BirdLife Hungary we are fortunate enough to have four-legged superheroes to help us. That’s right: we have dogs. But not just any dogs. You can spy on poisoned bait or carcasses. Falco, a German Shepherd, was the first dog in the anti-poison department to undergo extensive training with the Hungarian National Police.

Falco’s first field search was a bittersweet success: he found twelve Western Marsh-Harriers Circus aeruginosus, a Eurasian buzzard Buteo Buteo, four foxes, poisoned bait (eggs) and three Saker Falcons Falco Cherug (endangered) buried in the ground. It was devastating to expose such a death.

Inspired by Falco’s success, two more dogs were trained. Now three dogs (Falco, Carlo and Hella) are fighting against the illegal killing of birds in Hungary. And since birds know no borders, we have teamed up with Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria and Serbia to jointly carry out the PannonEagle LIFE project. And now dogs are saving birds in these places too.

So far, BirdLife Hungary’s dog unit has carried out more than a thousand searches. The task is daunting and impossible without financial support. There are always new ways to kill and new poisons arise. However, the international and cross-species collaboration with Falco and his friends gives us cause for hope.

“And I freed the black cap”: a bird protection mission in Lebanon

Léna Farran, Project Manager, BirdLife Lebanon

Eurasian black cap in the fog net © Léna Farran

I had set my alarm clock for 5 a.m. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep. I was on my first field mission as a member of the anti-poaching department of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL, BirdLife partner) alongside the Committee against Illegal Bird Slaughter (CABS).

At dawn we reached the village of Barja near Lebanon. Almost every house in Barja is part of a farm. That’s why we first split into two groups and then explored the city to find illegal fog nets and call devices in the olive groves and fruit groves.

After only two hours of patrol, we discovered six active trapping sites and calling devices used as bait. We reported the results to the internal security forces, who immediately mobilized and showed up on site. The support of the ISF was urgently needed because without it we could not dismantle any fog nests. An incredible number of animals were trapped in the nets – moths, butterflies, and birds. My heart ached.

While we were dismantling one of the nets, I spotted a Eurasian black cap, Sylvia atricapilla, fighting. I jumped with excitement! Without thinking, I held the trapped bird and stroked it gently so that it could feel safe. That was the first time I touched a bird. I called out to the others as the nets tangled badly around the frail bird’s body. After about half an hour we were able to free our feathered friend.

The rest of the day – and the week – I thought about this extraordinary experience. I felt like I could really change the life of a helpless creature. I had hope for birds in Lebanon, fragile as that hope may be. One thing is certain: in Lebanon, the support of the presidential team, the ISF and partners around the world is slowly but surely resisting the illegal killing of birds.

Stichting BirdLife Europe and BirdLife International thank you for the financial support from the MAVA Foundation, the EU LIFE program, the European Commission and Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Netherlands). The content and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the manufacturer and cannot be viewed as an expression of the position of the above-mentioned donors. The Flight for Survival campaign is partially funded by the LIFE Against Bird Crime project.

More information is available at www.flightforsurvival.org