A Trip to Italy Brings Good Times, But Many Concerns About Birds

Last April, during spring break, with a group of teachers, students and adults affiliated with South River High School, I went to Italy. This wasn’t a school sponsored trip, but we all went together and visited quite a few spots – some that are on the beaten path and others not so much.

The Itinerary

We started and ended the trip in Rome. In between, there were overnight stays in Alberobello and Meta (near Sorrento), with visits to Castel del Monte, Polignano di Mare, Locorotondo, Matera, Grotte di Castellana, Sorrento and Capri . While I had lived in bella Napoli back in my Navy days, there were quite a few places on this trip I hadn’t seen before and I’m glad I did, plus the time with my daughter was unforgettable. We had a great time.  And now that you’ve seen the itinerary, you can tell  we moved around a lot and we did this by bus. I sat in the front seat of the bus, right behind the driver – this gave me a great vantage point. Between the long bus rides and the visits to so many places, I saw a problem and in my opinion, it’s one more people need to know about.  

Where Are The Birds?

As you might know, I like birds and I look for them wherever I am. But, where were the songbirds in Italy? There were so few in all the places we  visited and during the ride from one spot to another, it was alarming. I saw some pigeons, crows, common blackbirds and gulls in Rome. I saw some gulls in Capri. I saw lesser kestrels in Matera that had just arrived on their migration from Africa. Also in Matera were swifts and swallows.

Some photos of birds –

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Common blackbird seen in Roman Forum.
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A very spunky hooded crow seen at the Coliseum.
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Gull seen in Capri.
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Fisherman and friend in the Gulf of Naples.

Other than those, I can’t name one other songbird observed. The problem, which admittedly, I was completely unaware of, had been well documented by others. And as I grew more and more concerned over the lack of birds, I turned to the internet for answers. It’s disheartening. In an article from National Geographic, published in May of this year, “ According to research by Birdlife International, a global partnership of bird conservation groups, more than five million birds are hunted illegally in Italy every year—by far the most in Europe. Many are killed immediately and eaten in traditional dishes. Others, especially songbirds, are kept alive and smuggled abroad, where they’re sold as pets or as bait birds for further trapping activities, as on the nearby Mediterranean island of Malta and its tiny neighbor, Gozo.” There are more articles, many more. In one called, “The Massacre of European Songbirds,” published in Newsweek in 2015, it states, “Resting on one knee, the hunter poses for the camera, his kill laid out in rows of 20 before him – birds ordered neatly into their respective species. The rarest are placed at the sides; red breasted geese, shelducks and a single sandpiper flanking dozens of coots, teals and white fronted geese. After the camera shutter snaps, the birds are quickly packed into plastic sacks. Before the end of the day, they will be skinned, drawn, packed and frozen in preparation to be smuggled overland to Italy. Within 48 hours, many will have been sold on the black market to Italian restaurants who will offer them up as traditional Italian fare.”

In addition to hunting songbirds, there’s another big problem – machinery used for harvesting olives. In this article, which appeared May 22, 2019 issue of Olive Oil Times, titled, “Millions of Birds Killed by Nighttime Harvesting in Mediterranean,” is this lede – “The songbirds, many of which migrate from northern and central Europe to winter in North Africa, frequently stop in southern Spain, France, Portugal and Italy, to rest while they are traveling and are sucked out of the trees at night by super-intensive harvesting machines.”

In the United States, in my neighborhood for instance, I can’t drive a block without seeing birds – lots of them. Is it possible I was completely oblivious to this problem in Italy when I was stationed there in the late 1980s? Or is it that birds seen 30 years ago no longer are being seen? Either way, the absence of birds in Italy is alarming and it was a wake up call for me. There are organizations that are trying to help. As some might be aware, I’ve written quite a lot about the bald eagle poisonings in Maryland.  Because birds have wings, they move from place to place – bald eagles and songbirds included. A problem in one area for birds is a problem in many areas – as in the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

Organizations Helping Birds in Italy / Europe

Some organizations working on these issues:

The Committee Against Bird Slaughter.

Bird Life International

Carabinieri (Italian Military Police)

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

If you click on this, you’ll find an article I referenced previously that has a lot of information about what is being done to help. Do read it.

Why so long?

It’s now late July and my travel to Italy was in April. Why such a long delay in writing this? I love Italy, the Italian people, language, culture and, of course, the food. I’ve always considered it my home away from home and a place where I experienced so much. The moment I first reported to the Italy for the Navy I knew it’d be a lifelong love affair and it has been that.  It’s not easy to reconcile that something so bad is happening in a place I love so much. I guess it’s similar to the poisoning of bald eagles in Maryland, right? So, there it is. Italy has a problem. And perhaps it should be considered a problem that goes beyond Italy. Because birds fly.  

Gull above St. Peter’s Basilica

Note

You’ll be seeing Matera on the big screen soon and it’s my guess people will want to know more about it. In the near future, I’ll be sharing another post just about Matera. You can subscribe to this blog (see below in comment area) – you’ll get notifications when new posts go up. Ciao, for now.

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