28 Apr 2021

Despatches from the bird migration battlefront

With millions of birds illegally killed each year, working to protect them can seem like an overwhelming battle. That’s when inspirational, heart-warming success stories are needed. We hear first-hand accounts from conservation’s ‘frontline’ in Malta, Hungary and Lebanon.

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

When photojournalist David Guttenfelder covered the slaughter of songbirds in the Mediterranean for National Geographic in 2013, he said it was like covering a war. Every year, over 25 million birds are illegally killed as they fly in waves from northern Europe over the Mediterranean and the Caucasus. Like a war, it’s 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 exceptional work they do every day to protect our feathered friends.

Launched two years ago in this magazine, Flight for Survival is an international awareness-raising campaign aiming to end the illegal killing crisis. So far, it has had over 128,000 unique visitors to its website and millions of impressions on social media. The campaign lays bare the many dangers facing migratory birds, and also helps raise money for our Partners’ critical conservation work in the field. Here’s a snapshot of their work – just a few beautiful stories of humanity at its best.


No more callers: citizen engagement tackles Malta’s illegal killing

Mark Sultana, CEO of BirdLife Malta

Trapped Golden Plover © BirdLife Malta

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

In 2019, BirdLife Malta launched #NoMoreCallers: a people-powered campaign to fight the illegal use of electronic bird calling devices, mobilising citizens to report such devices across the country. A bird caller can be anything from a small hand-held device to an intricate system of car batteries, a digital playing device and speakers. They are often hidden in stone walls, attached to trapping hides or even bolted within concrete structures, making them hard to remove. Callers attract birds down to trapping sites peppered throughout the countryside in Malta and Gozo. They are often used to trap Eurasian Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria and other protected birds.

#NoMoreCallers was a resounding success, with an extraordinary response from the public: throughout the campaign, we received over 600 reports with details and GPS co-ordinates. The large amount of reports allowed us to insist once more to both the local government and the European Commission that Malta is failing to control this illegality. One has to keep in mind that the illegality of electronic callers is mainly linked with trapping. Trapping is not allowed by the EU Birds Directive, but Malta grants exemptions, and tries to justify it as a traditional pastime. We will remain adamant that none of the exemptions applied by Malta are justified.

The number of reports proved that the use of electronic lures is widespread across the Maltese archipelago. But the level of public engagement with this campaign proved something else: there is a strong movement to protect birds within our society.


Sniffing out poison: how dogs are saving birds in Hungary

Gábor Deák, Dog Unit Leader, BirdLife Hungary

Falco finds a dead Imperial Eagle © Gábor Deák

If you are wandering around in Hungary, you don’t have to worry about running into wide mist nets with songbirds struggling in them. You will not see birds trapped in glue sticks either. Storks don’t have to worry about bullets. Illegal killing in Hungary is much less obvious. It’s silent. Discreet. Vicious. But just as deadly. The killer’s name? Poison.

The situation is dire, but at BirdLife Hungary we’re lucky enough to have four-legged superheroes to help us. That’s right: we’ve got dogs. But not just any dogs. They can sniff out poisoned bait or carcasses. Falco, a German shepherd, was the first dog in the anti-poison unit that underwent extensive training with the Hungarian National Police.

Falco’s first field search was a bittersweet success: he found twelve Western Marsh-harriers Circus aeruginosus, one Eurasian Buzzard Buteo buteo, four foxes, poisoned bait (eggs) and three Saker Falcons Falco cherrug (Endangered) buried in the ground. It was devastating to uncover such death.

Inspired by Falco’s success, two more dogs were trained. Now, three dogs (Falco, Carlo and Hella) are fighting the illegal killing of birds in Hungary. And as birds know no borders, we teamed up with Slovakia, Czechia, Austria and Serbia to run the PannonEagle LIFE project together. And now, dogs are saving birds in those places, too.

So far, BirdLife Hungary’s dog unit has carried out more than a thousand searches. The task is daunting, and it’s not possible without financial support. There are always new ways to kill and new poisons that emerge. But international and interspecies co-operation with Falco and his friends give us reason for hope.


“And I set the blackcap free”: a bird-saving mission in Lebanon

Léna Farran, Project Manager, BirdLife Lebanon

Eurasian Blackcap in mist net © Léna Farran

I had set my alarm for 5:00 AM. I was so excited I could barely sleep. I was going on my first field mission as a member of the Anti-Poaching unit of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL, BirdLife Partner), alongside the Committee Against Illegal Bird Slaughter (CABS).

We reached the village of Barja near Mount Lebanon at the crack of dawn. Almost every house in Barja is part of a farm, so we first split into two groups, and then explored the town in order to locate illegal mist nets and calling devices among the olive orchards and fruit groves.

After only two hours of patrolling, we uncovered six active trapping sites and calling devices that are used as lures. We reported the findings to the Internal Security Forces, who immediately mobilised and showed up on site. The support of the ISF was much needed, as we couldn’t dismantle any mist nests without them. 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 struggling Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla. I jumped out of excitement! Without thinking, I held the trapped bird and stroked it gently so it could feel safe. That was the first time I had ever touched a bird. I called out to the others, as the nets were severely tangled around the frail bird’s body. After half an hour or so, we were able to set our feathered friend free.

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


Stichting BirdLife Europe and BirdLife International gratefully acknowledge financial support from the MAVA Foundation, the EU LIFE programme, the European Commission and Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Netherlands). The content and opinions expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the producers and cannot be regarded as reflecting the position of the funders mentioned above. The Flight for Survival campaign is partially funded by the LIFE Against Bird Crime project.

Find out more at www.flightforsurvival.org