Where Birds Come to Die

By Daphne Caruana Galizia
Malta Independent
November 9, 2006

I always know that Christmas is coming when I begin to find dead robins in our garden. It happens every year. Life in Malta means that the first harbinger of the festive season is not a robin on a greetings card, but a bloodied one outside the washroom door. Picking up the most recent one to throw it into the bin – I draw the line at Christian burials for birds – I thought how strange it is that the only time I get to hold a robin in my hand, and to admire its childhood-story perfection up close, the creature is stone cold and full of lead shot. That's how my children got to know about them too: first hopping about among the bushes, then dead and covered in blood.

Living where I do, the full ugliness of relentless bird-shooting is inescapable. I hear the gun-shots; I see the birds fall. Some years ago, when a pair of migrating hoopoes was resting around the house for a couple of days, I found a clutch of men with guns waiting behind the gate, poised and ready to shoot. They didn't want to trespass, but they didn't seem to mind committing the crime of killing a protected species.

At this time of the year, as in the spring, there are frequent reports in the newspapers of protected birds being shot. They fill all right-thinking people with disgust. Illogical thinkers will tell you that it's hypocritical to get angry about the killing of an osprey and not about the killing of a sparrow or a chicken. But it's not hypocritical at all. The reason these birds are protected is the same reason we feel dismay at their destruction: their beauty and above all, their rarity. It's got nothing to do with being pro-life for birds in general. Rare and beautiful old master paintings do not have the same status in our regard as run-of-the-mill watercolours dashed off by hobby painters.

A few days ago, walkers at Fomm ir-Rih found an osprey that had been badly injured by lead shot in both its wings. It had been ringed in Helsinki and was young enough to be on its first migratory trip from Scandinavia to Africa. Unexceptionally, it met its death in Malta. A vet had to dispatch it to the netherworld because its wings could not be repaired.

Yet ospreys have been protected here since 1980. They do not pass over Malta every year, and when a few of them do, there is a mad frenzy among our men with guns. There is an equal frenzy of panic among those who care about these things, because the breeding population of ospreys in Europe is only – draw a breath here – around 7,500. Finland has a mere 1,300, and we have just killed one of them. Of course, there may have been more killings of ospreys, because this just so happens to be the only one found before the shooters got to it to take it home for stuffing. BirdLife Malta says that 27 ospreys – which means half the number sighted in the Maltese islands – were shot in their first year of life, maybe because they were too young to have the foresight to give Malta a wide berth. Thirteen of them were just a few months old and had been ringed by Scandinavian conservationists before migration.

More recently still, 24 short-toed eagles, also a protected species, were blasted out of the sky. Those eagles were first sighted in the afternoon at Tal-Handaq. They flew towards Zebbug and then Dwejra. The hunters followed them throughout. I dread to imagine how they drove; next time you are cut up by somebody with road-rage in a pick-up, look up at the sky. This newspaper described the situation as a "flurry of car chases by several hunters, discouraged to some extent by the presence of police". BirdLife Malta reported that the original number of eagles dropped gradually as they flew over the island: first 24, then 17, then 10, and then none. Volunteers actually saw three of the birds being shot out of the sky. The police had been called and were with the volunteers in the area where the eagles were circling. We have heard nothing further. Short-toed eagles are strictly protected in Europe and they are the subject of conservation measures because their declining numbers mean that they are threatened with extinction.

Hunting is one thing. Illegal hunting is another thing altogether. Those who kill protected species are destroying the common heritage of mankind. On the one hand, we have conservationists in northern Europe working hard on breeding programmes and protection measures to save these birds from extinction, and on the other hand, there is Malta, where birds come to die. The situation is completely intolerable and runs contrary to public opinion here, which has shifted massively and definitely against the killing of any wild birds, but particularly protected species. The air of mild tolerance or outright indifference has evaporated. The government, any government, needs to be alert to this shift and begin to fear the disapproval of the general public, rather than that of bird-shooters.

The appalling impunity with which these people act is quite beyond belief. If I were to go around with a gun shooting at people's cars or windows, I imagine that I would be arrested immediately. Yet these men stalk what little is left of our countryside blasting eagles out of the sky, and somehow, they can't be found or caught. Last Easter Sunday, we were sitting outside at tea-time when a flight of eagles appeared circling in the distance. One brother-in-law rushed for the binoculars, another for the zoom lens. Within seconds, there were gun-shots, and this time, we rushed for the phone to call the police. The gun-shots continued. We called out and shouted, but whoever was shooting was too far away to hear. The eagles were too high for shooting, mere tiny specks in the sky, but at some point they must have come lower to rest for the night and heaven knows what happened to them then.

* * *

People have been dashing off letters to the newspapers to claim that those who are writing about Fr Anthony Mercieca of Gozo are doing so only because he is a priest. Perhaps they would prefer to live in a society where such behaviour is met with complete silence, possibly imposed by the religious authorities with the backing of the state.

Well, of course we are doing so only because he is a priest. If he had been a clerk in a government office the story would not have carried the same significance. A priest is in a position of high respect and even higher trust.

Worst of all is the trotting out of the Biblical chestnut, 'let he who is without sin cast the first stone'. The people who rush to quote this overlook the fact that the sin in question was that of prostitution – or more likely, adultery – and that we have no idea whether Christ's instruction was made in particular reference to that sin rather than to sin in general. He may simply have been suggesting that it was hypocritical for those men to be casting stones at a woman for sleeping around when they were the ones who had been sleeping with her.

It was also an instruction against violent punishment, rather than against public disapproval of sins and crimes. When he found traders in the temple he didn't turn a blind eye and tell himself "let he who is without sin". No, he flew into a rage, overturned their merchandise and threw them out of the place. It's silly and childish to be so simplistic in the interpretation of these famous words, and disingenuous to use them only to back your own favoured cause.

We have no idea whether Christ would have been of the same mind had the person being stoned been a man guilty of fiddling with children rather than a woman who had slept with men to whom she wasn't married. Certainly, his words on the former were clear enough: that it would be better for such people to hang a millstone round their necks and drown themselves in the sea.

I should remind these people that child abuse is not just a 'sin', in terms of religion. It is a crime, in terms of society and the state. Those who commit crimes against society, and particularly against the young of that society, expose themselves to public scorn, public scrutiny, public criticism and, if justice takes its course, public trial. Yes, there should be two weights and two measures in media coverage of this case, because the man involved is not just any man, but a man in a position that makes his actions – which he himself has spoken about – an abuse of the trust and respect vested in his priestly position.

It is the two weights and two measures approach adopted by the 'he who is without sin…' brigade that is wrongly conceived. They are treating this man with compassion because he is a priest, when they made no such calls for compassion, and understandably felt none, for the men involved in any one of the ghastly child abuse cases that shocked and disgusted Malta over the last few months, nor even for the woman who left her daughter to live among cats.

May I remind these people that it's not the abusers who are deserving of compassion, whether they are priests or not, but their victims.


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