In the July 26th issue of the New Yorker magazine, there is an excellent story by novelist Jonathan Franzen called “Emptying the Skies” about illegal songbird market hunting and trapping in the Mediterranean nation of Cyprus. Franzen, who is apparently as effective a journalist as he is a fiction-writer, accompanies a group called the Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) as they try to free warblers and flycatchers and other species from “lime sticks,” a trap made from a long switch coated in sticky sap that bird poachers place in orchards and anywhere that birds gather. The poachers’ goal: a bagful of songbirds for sale to restaurants and markets for pickling or to make ambelopoulia, a platter of fried little birds that has been a traditional delicacy in the Mediterranean since the 16th century. One restaurant owner in the story who serves the illegal ambelopoulia likens the dish to natural Viagra, of course. (Rhinos being hard to come by on the Mediterranean, fried-up little birds must suffice.) The result: what was once a traditional rural delicacy is now a booming underground business catering to more affluent Cypriots and tourists, and the bird populations are going down fast. Law enforcement seems uninterested.
Franzen also visits the nation of Malta, where it is estimated that about 12,000 people hunt songbirds for food and sport and mounts (there is plenty of illegal trapping, too, according to the story). Malta is in the middle of a major migration path for European songbirds, so millions of them have to pass through every spring, which is when the majority of hunting traditionally has taken place. Not surprisingly, killing so many songbirds on the way to their breeding grounds means that there are a lot fewer birds these days, not just in Malta, but in the countries where the birds spend the other seasons. The fight is on, between the legitimate- or at least licensed- hunters and the anti-hunters from Malta and from all across the European Union. Meanwhile, most in the story agree, the illegal shooters and trappers are hard at work, spring, summer and fall, with enforcement of the laws protecting the birds as lax as ever. The hunters interviewed seemed unable to set aside their differences with the anti-hunters (maybe that would be impossible), even though both want there to be more birds, and more protection. Both groups seem unable to get law enforcement to actually enforce the laws protecting the birds that remain. It’s a Mexican standoff- or in this case a Maltese one. There’s not much discussion of habitat in it, either.
But as I read the story, I kept on thinking- why has the US been so different than this? Why have our hunters been the driving force behind conservation and preservation of habitat for almost 100 years (whether our own antis want to admit it or not)? We whacked out the passenger pigeon, decimated (at least, since decimation means killing one in ten) the plovers, curlews, etc. Almost polished off the buffalo and the grizz. But we brought them back, and made sure that they had habitat. We paid for the National Wildlife Refuge System with Duck Stamp money, and so on (and on, and on). We Americans seem to feel an obligation to the animals that we hunt- that if you are not in some way making sure it goes on, you don’t feel right about taking them. There’s nothing in Franzen’s story to suggest that the Cypriots or the Maltese hunters or the poachers feel any similar obligation.
What makes us different? I have my own ideas, but I’d like to hear what F&S readers think.