If there was a league table of suffering, designed to remind us of the issues that deserve the greatest share of human concern, the plight of songbirds might not come high on the list.
Yet rather than attempting to adjudicate how concern should be sliced and apportioned, maybe we should instead reflect on the insidious effects of indifference.
Looking at the world often feels like staring at a raw wound — our instincts tell us to turn away. But this turning away, quickly becomes a habit and the desire to insulate ourselves from pain ends up as a way of shutting out life.
Jonathan Franzen writes: In a bird market in the Mediterranean tourist town of Marsa Matruh, Egypt, I was inspecting cages crowded with wild turtledoves and quail when one of the birdsellers saw the disapproval in my face and called out sarcastically, in Arabic: “You Americans feel bad about the birds, but you don’t feel bad about dropping bombs on someone’s homeland.”
I could have answered that it’s possible to feel bad about both birds and bombs, that two wrongs don’t make a right. But it seemed to me that the birdseller was saying something true about the problem of nature conservation in a world of human conflict, something not so easily refuted. He kissed his fingers to suggest how good the birds tasted, and I kept frowning at the cages.
To a visitor from North America, where bird hunting is well regulated and only naughty farm boys shoot songbirds, the situation in the Mediterranean is appalling: Every year, from one end of it to the other, hundreds of millions of songbirds and larger migrants are killed for food, profit, sport, and general amusement. The killing is substantially indiscriminate, with heavy impact on species already battered by destruction or fragmentation of their breeding habitat. Mediterraneans shoot cranes, storks, and large raptors for which governments to the north have multimillion-euro conservation projects. All across Europe bird populations are in steep decline, and the slaughter in the Mediterranean is one of the causes.
Italian hunters and poachers are the most notorious; for much of the year, the woods and wetlands of rural Italy crackle with gunfire and songbird traps. The food-loving French continue to eat ortolan buntings illegally, and France’s singularly long list of huntable birds includes many struggling species of shorebirds. Songbird trapping is still widespread in parts of Spain; Maltese hunters, frustrated by a lack of native quarry, blast migrating raptors out of the sky; Cypriots harvest warblers on an industrial scale and consume them by the plateful, in defiance of the law. [Continue reading…]