Risking everything to save songbirds

Millions of migrant birds are illegally caught for food each year. A new documentary, Emptying The Skies, portrays the brave people fighting to enforce the law. When group of vigilante birders trespass on a poacher’s private garden and start destroying property, you know things aren’t going to end well. Hitmen arrive and start hurling rocks. A birder flees, two others are kicked while lying on the ground, and a reporter falls face first into a fence. Such is the drama of Emptying the Skies, a disturbing documentary based on an essay by the writer Jonathan Franzen. Half a billion songbirds are killed each year as they migrate between Europe and Africa. Historically, farmers across the Mediterranean captured and ate a small number of passerines during the autumn and spring migration. Now poaching occurs on an industrial scale. Non-traditional methods such as thin “mist” nets allow individuals to capture tens of thousands of birds in a single night.

Franzen first reported on this in an article for The New Yorker. In this film, he teams up with long-time director-producer team, brothers Douglas and Roger Kass, for a closer look at the activists who risk their lives to save birds. Emptying the Skies takes us into a grey world of activism, where members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) often break the law in order to enforce routinely overlooked anti-hunting laws. “They may be a little crazy,” says Franzen, who is the film’s executive producer and narrator, “but the situation… is enough to drive you crazy.” With populations in precipitous decline, the killing of migratory songbirds was outlawed nearly 40 years ago under Europe’s “Birds Directive”. The practice remains widespread, however, as we see when the film takes us to a French restaurant. There, patrons with cloth napkins draped over their heads eat ortolan (Emberiza hortulana), a yellow-throated bunting that migrates between northern Europe and West Africa. The napkins are said to help capture the bird’s aroma, yet also make the ghastly indulgence seem all the more macabre. From the film, we also learn that between 10 and 15 per cent of bird species worldwide are now endangered, and that of these roughly half are migrants. Birds with a wide range are particularly susceptible to habitat degradation and climate change, so the additional killing of millions hastens their decline. What struck me most about Emptying the Skies was how it humanised the activists who routinely risk their lives to save individual birds. Franzen rightly notes that rescuing 100, 1000, or even 50,000 birds has no effect on the extinction or preservation of a species. Yet by giving a voice to these otherwise voiceless creatures, CABS is making steady, albeit slow, progress ending the unsustainable slaughter. When members of CABS began working in Brescia, northern Italy, in the late 1980s, they were greeted by mobs of angry hunters who shot at them, broke their car windows and, on occasion, their bones

Today, few poachers remain in the area: attitudes towards poaching have changed, and the Italian government now takes illegal bird-hunting more seriously and enforces the laws. Even so, there is still much work to do, and time is not on the side of CABS, a small organisation trying to take action across Europe. One of the battlegrounds is Albania, in south-eastern Europe, where I recently experienced emptying skies first hand. Historically, millions of ducks, geese and other migrating waterfowl funnelled through the Balkan peninsula in spring and autumn, stopping to refuel in the coastal wetlands. In the protected wetlands I visited, I often saw more shotgun shells and illegal hunting blinds than living birds. In October 2014, CABS member Tamás Kiss screened this film at a conference focused on combating illegal bird killing in Durrës, Albania. Since then, four Albanian conservation organisations have teamed up to enforce the country’s hunting ban. It seems the voice that CABS first gave to songbirds decades ago is finally being heard.  New Scientist  Original web page at New Scientist