Monday, February 06, 2006

When the guns go silent

"It's an ill wind that blows no good," my mother says, meaning every misfortune can have some happy side effect. And so it is for bird flu and the birds.

Bird flu has now been reported in Iraq, and according to the newspapers, Iraqi hunters -- big bird blasters -- have stopped shooting migrating birds for fear of disease.

Several years ago I went on a solo walking tour of Malta. The island is smack in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea on an avian flyway between Europe and Africa. Each spring and fall migrating birds are greeted by Maltese men armed with shotguns and nets -- and slaughtered in the millions. My springtime walk was accompanied by the ever-present pop, pop of shotguns.

Every shore, every field, every open patch of land was chockablock with the paraphernalia of massacre. Nets for trapping songbirds. Blinds for hunters. Traylike stands for holding live decoys in cages.

We are not talking about shooting for the table. Songbirds, hawks, owls, ospreys, herons, swans, even sparrows: If it flies, it's dead. This so-called sport goes back centuries to a time when fowling made a necessary contribution to the islanders' diet. Hunting is now ingrained in island culture as a perverse caricature of the former activity.

Visitors to Malta have long condemned the slaughter, and lately the Maltese are turning up the pressure on the shooters -- organizing bird sanctuaries, pressing for more stringent laws, and supporting conservation organizations.

Maybe fear of bird flu can do what the best efforts of conservationists have so far failed to effect.

(More tomorrow.)