Few scientists would dispute the importance of protecting oases in the Sahara (for Old World birds heading to Africa), lush streamside vegetation in the deserts of the southwestern United States (important to many migrants in the western United States), or migration hot spots like Cape May, New Jersey. But for the vast majority of stopover sites, we can only guess how vital they really are to migrants. For example, tens of millions (maybe hundreds of millions) of migratory birds are slaughtered annually along the Mediterranean coast as they seek shelter in forests and fields after an exhausting journey across the sea . Everything from hawks and doves to larks and owls is fair game, and all manner of hunting implements are employed, including guns, nets, snares, and lures. Most of this killing is for kicks, but in a number of countries there exists a thriving if discrete commercial trade in wild birds, which are served in restaurants or consumed at home.
On the European side of the Mediterranean Sea, in countries such as France, Spain, Malta, Cyprus, and Italy, bird hunting is largely an autumn activity, whereas on the African side it is equally intense in the spring and fall. All this hunting has engendered a split within the European community, with environmentalists in the northern European nations denouncing the practice as barbaric or harmful, and sportsmen in the southern nations defending it as cherished tradition. No one is certain exactly how many birds are shot each year or, more importantly, the degree to which the slaughter is affecting overall populations. The number of birds heading south each fall, swelled by the summer’s reproduction, is inevitably greater than the number returning in the spring. the question is whether the birds taken by hunters in the fall would have died anyway or whether their loss ultimately leads to diminished populations on the breeding grounds in the following spring. (One would expect spring hunting to have a greater effect on breeding populations, since it is removing birds that have already survived the autumn migration and the winter, but once again we don’t know enough about the factors that ultimately limit bird populations on the breeding grounds to be certain.)
…pages 33-34. The footnote, originally footnote #18 in Chapter 1: Empty Skies:
My discussion of bird hunting in Europe and North Africa is taken from M.N. McCulloch, G.M. Tucker, and S.R. Baillie (1992), The hunting of migratory birds in Europe: A ringing recovery analysis, Ibis 134 (supplement): 55-65; [here]; Environmental News Service (2005), Cyprus tried education to halt songbird slaughter, September 20, [here]; and H. Youth (2003), Winged Messengers: The Decline of Birds, Worldwatch Paper 165 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute); [here]