Every year in the spring, a massive genocide breaks out in several Mediterranean countries that claims a few million lives. Avian lives. Jonathan Franzen wrote about this outrage in the New Yorker last week.
If you’re a lover of nature, this article will make your heart ache. If you’re a lover of nature with a special affinity for its avian subjects, this article might be a lot more painful.
I belong to the first category of nature lovers, never having applied myself to learn about creatures that don’t keep their feet on the ground much. I know the difference between a gaudy peacock and a drab peahen. And I could tell you about the size and coloring of our urban co-dwellers like doves, crows, sparrows, etc., even if I couldn’t tell you about their habits. But that’s about it. I wouldn’t know a crested finch if it bit me on the nose or a black-headed bunting if it trilled in my ear.
As Franzen describes in his story, between March and May each year, thousands of people in Cyprus, Southern Italy, etc., point their guns up at the sky and murder millions of songbirds like these as they make their seasonal south-to-north hegira. Some are killed for sport, which is vile enough. But most are killed for consumption – not as sustenance, which might be understandable at some level, but as a delicacy that you can buy and eat for around 5 euros per bird in local restaurants, which is unforgivable at every level.
This songbird slaughter is apparently so lucrative as a business that the bird-shooting contingent is now overrun with members of the Mafia and other criminal organizations. Franzen’s account of how he and his bird-saving friends were threatened and roughed up by these goons in Cyprus is disturbing. Even more so, his narrative of the bird murders in Malta. The Maltese hunters apparently argue that their anti-avian campaign is their “tradition” and “culture,” and that it is too small to make a meaningful dent in European bird populations — a claim that’s surely made by all hunters everywhere to justify their cruel hobby.
Malta is, according to Franzen, “the most savagely bird-hostile place in Europe. There are twelve thousand registered hunters (about three percent of the country’s population), a large number of whom consider it their birthright to shoot any bird unlucky enough to migrate over Malta, regardless of the season or the bird’s protection status. The Maltese shoot bee-eaters, hoopoes, golden orioles, shearwaters, storks, and herons. They stand outside the fences of the international airport and shoot swallows for target practice. They shoot from the rooftops and from the side of busy roads. They stand in closely spaced Cliffside bunkers and mow down flocks of migrating hawks…When bird-watchers in Italy see a migrant that’s missing a chunk of its wing or its tail, they call it ‘Maltese plumage’.”
Reading this stirred an unpleasant memory of my own.
Five years ago, while casting about for a vacation destination that offered all four of my requirements (spectacular sights, history & culture, divine cuisine, moderate comfort) at grad student prices, I had a flash of inspiration and persuaded one of my best friends to hang out with me for a week in Malta.
The whole country amounts to three small, medium and large limestone rocks jutting out of the Mediterranean halfway between Europe and Africa and covers a total area of 300 gorgeous sq. km that’s jam packed with delectable sights. We spent a happy few days exploring all kinds of architecture from all periods of human civilization — megalithic stone temples, early Christian catacombs, Renaissance palaces, Baroque churches — and all the stunning art contained within. We bounced all around the country on cute but jangly buses to check out fortified towns, and hidden beaches, bays and coves.
And at the end of an almost perfect week, while on an inland hike that took us mostly through open brush country south of Mellieha Bay, we ran into the hunters. Our first sign of their existence was when we jumped over one of those low, stone walls that crisscross most of Malta’s open landscape and landed in a field that was carpeted with spent shells and cartridges.
As we scrunched over these and crested a hill, we saw a cluster of dogs circling and snuffling around a knot of men with rifles hung over their shoulders. We stood there a little uncertainly, debating if we should try to nonchalantly descend the path and continue on our mapped route with a friendly nod to the men. I reached into my backpack to grab some chocolate for the dogs – a treat that saved me from an overly zealous farm dog in Tuscany a few years before.
The dogs decided for us. They growled, lowered their heads and bared their teeth. I kept waiting for the men to hold on to their collars and wave us ahead. But all they did was smoke their cigarettes, mutter and stare at us sullenly. I waved, shouted hello and put a foot forward, which must have sent some kind of “come-and-get-me” signal to the dogs and their masters.
My friend, who is much smarter than I am, began to drag me off the path and we took off at a dead run. And kept up the pace until we could no longer hear the dogs chasing after us. Our hasty retreat sent us stumbling over another low wall into someone’s vegetable patch and through another backyard where an old woman sat gutting a chicken. Although we laughed at our adventure at the end of the day when we made it back unscathed to our hotel in Valetta, I’ve never forgotten those stony-faced, unhelpful men with their guns.