The European population of the turtle dove is declining.
A census carried out in 2007 has shown that its numbers have fallen by 62% because of changes in agriculture and the shooting of migratory birds in southern Europe.
The decline is so big that experts believe that this species is going towards what is termed as continental extinction. What stops it from being listed as an endangered species is the large Asian population which is still healthy.
The turtle dove is a migratory species that spends the winter in southern Africa. The number of turtle doves migrating over the Maltese islands has also gone down, probably by more than 62 % which is the European average.
When I started bird watching, thirty years ago, we used to see more turtle doves than we see nowadays. At that time hunters used to describe the large flocks of turtle doves which migrated over Malta every year.
Probably none of these hunters expected that the turtle dove would decrease so much that it would one day become an endangered species. Hopefully the turtle dove will not go the same way as the North American passer pigeon which with an estimated population of between 3 and 5 billion birds was considered to be one of the most abundant birds in the world.
This species migrated in large flocks that could stretch 1.6 km wide and 500 km long across the sky, sometimes taking several hours to pass. In the early 19th century gunners started to shoot at these birds for food and sport and by the end of the century what conservationists had been saying for a long time did happen – the passer pigeon became extinct in the wild.
The disappearance of this species gave a major impetus to the conservation movement in the United States which resulted in new legislation being passed to conserve nature. Unfortunately this came too late to save the passer pigeon.
The Maltese government will be allowing the shooting of turtle doves for six days while they are migrating to their breeding sites at the end of this month. This decision goes against all conservation practices as every bird shot at this time of the year means one nest less. Furthermore in Malta during the hunting season all birds, whether protected or not, are shot.
Protected birds were indiscriminately shot during the autumn and are still being shot now even though the hunting season is not yet open. The police so far have not been able to control the situation and we would be deluding ourselves to believe that things have changed.
To add insult to injury on Monday the Prime Minister announced that next year hunters will be allowed to hunt for three whole weeks. No spring hunting was allowed for the past two years and the results were there for everyone to see. It was not just birdwatchers who noticed more birds in the Maltese countryside but also casual visitors to the countryside and even people who do not visit the countryside at all. I met many people who excitedly described flocks of birds which they had never seen before.
If the Prime Minister goes on with his intention of opening the hunting season Malta will again be shamed throughout Europe, because a small group of people arrogantly hold the rest of the country hostage and those who should be saying no to them give in as soon as they start protesting. Thanks to this attitude the turtle dove which in many parts of the world has become the emblem of devoted love and the other migratory birds which we have been seeing in the past two years will again disappear.
This article appeared in The Times on 14.04.10