|Birdlife on the Maltese Islands
In the Maltese Islands there are approximately 384 recordings of different species of avifauna, of which about 167 are rare or accidental. Unfortunately, Malta has a very limited range of regular breeders, however, each species is unique and many species are protected by law. The natural bird of Malta is the Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitaries) and was featured on the Lm 1 coins which were used prior to the introduction of the Euro currency.
The Blue Rock Thrush (known as Il-Merill in Maltese) may be seen all year round in the Maltese Islands and its population here is relatively strong, mostly due to the fact that it is a protected bird and so the negative affect that hunters and trappers bring upon a species of bird’s population is eliminated. It is usually found along the cliffs and coasts of Western and Northern Malta, as well as in Comino and the Southern coast of Gozo. The male is mainly blue (hence the name) with black wings and tail, whereas the female is not so colourful but usually a dark brown colour. Females lay between three to six eggs during one of two brooding seasons. The Blue Rock Thrush is widely known for the melodious song which it is able to perform.
The Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) is another species of bird which is regularly seen in the Maltese Islands, although it does not breed here. It is one of the few birds of prey which have been sighted around the islands. It may be seen migrating during the Autumn months. These birds are capable of living to a ripe age and the oldest recorded bird of this species died in Denmark aged just over 20 years.
The bird which thrives in the Maltese Islands, and great populations of them have been sighted in almost every town or city in Malta and Gozo, is the rock pigeon (Columba Iivia). The population of this bird is greatly increasing, even though the bird itself is not protected by law and hundreds of them are killed by hunting. In the capital city, Valletta, huge flocks of them can be seen all throughout the year. By decree of law, it has become illegal to feed pigeons in Valletta due to the fact that the pigeon’s faeces have proved to be damaging to the architectural heritage of the city.
A resident breeder of the islands, Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti) is an Old World warbler and is the only bush warbler to be located outside of Asia. The bird is named after Italian zoologist Francesco Cetti. It feeds only on insects such as grasshoppers and explains its presence in rural areas, especially where in valleys which have a large variety of bushes, as insects may be found here. The Cetti’s warbler population in the islands appears to be increasing, although it is a relatively late addition to the bird population in Malta, with first recordings dating back to the 1970’s.
As previously stated, the population of the Rock Pigeon in Malta is very strong, as are the populations of the species of doves here; most commonly those of the Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur) and the Collared Dove (Streptopelia decaocto), which also have been breeding successfully in the islands. These two species of doves resemble each other and are always easily mistaken. They also resemble most species of pigeon.
In Malta, there are two main causes that drastically decrease the population of any species of bird. These are hunting and urbanization. To tackle urbanization first, we must look at the human population residing in the Maltese islands. These islands have a human population of approximately 410,000 people, and are the seventh most densely populated state in the world. Due to this high population, many buildings and edifices must be built so as to accommodate the needs of man. To create and construct these buildings empty space, or rather, space which has little or no buildings must be utilized, thus turning rural areas which many species use to nest and breed into urban areas fit only for mankind. Unfortunately, there is little one can do to prevent this except by protecting certain areas as nature reserves or natural sites. An example of a nature reserve in Malta which deals with the avifauna of the nation is BirdLife Malta.
The second aspect which reduces bird population nation-wide is that of hunting and trapping. In Malta, hunters are legally allowed to shoot at doves, quails, woodcocks and ducks. However, illegal hunting is rife and many hundreds of birds which are said to be protected by law are shot and killed every year. Three species of bird have become extinct in the Maltese islands due to illegal hunting, namely the Barn Owl (Tyto alba), the Jackdaw (Corvus monedula) and the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus). BirdLife Malta and its fellow volunteers have made a huge difference by setting up a nature reserve so as to help boost the population of birds in the islands.
A legal hunter (who asked to be unnamed) said that, “These illegal hunters have destroyed a sport which I have enjoyed since I was a child and would go on excursions to hunt with my grandfather”. He suggested that the “government should clamp down upon these illegal hunters by confiscating their gun licenses and awarding them fines, or even prison sentences”. The European Union regularly criticized the Maltese government from the April-May Hunting season of 2004, the year of Malta’s entry into the European Union for legalising the hunting of doves and quails and therefore not complying with their bird directive.
For the time being, it looks as if the only hope for birdlife to increase in our islands is with the aid of BirdLife Malta and their international volunteers.
Wildlife of the Maltese Islands, BirdLife Malte and Nature Trust, 1995
www.birdlife.org/news. as accessed on the 14th of March 2011
www.nationalgeographic.org. as accessed on the 14th of March 2011