Clipping their wings
by Birdlife Czech Republic and Slovenia
Birds of prey such as eagles and hawks are often captured illegally or killed by the breeders of pigeons and other animals in many Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries. Culprits often use iron traps or poisons. They are also killed, or their nests raided, by hunters, including commercial hunters from Italy who track endangered species for high-priced dinner plates back home.
Many of these crimes are committed on fully protected birds. Others occur because less protected birds are hunted out of season or because ill-trained hunters misidentify protected birds.
Poor national laws are also to blame. For example, changes made to Czech hunting regulations in 1996 opened the door to the unlimited hunting of ducks and geese during autumn migration periods. The law also now permits goose hunting until the end of February, thereby affecting breeding populations.
Falconry is legal in many countries, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. In the Czech Republic in 1999, falconers kept 1,291 falcons while data on natural wild populations showed that only ten pairs existed in the whole country! At the same time, wild birds are ten times more expensive in local markets, tempting many to steel falcons from wild nests.
Another problem with captive falcons is that they often escape. If they cross breed with wild species, the gene pools of these rare and endangered species can be altered. The problem is made worse by the fact that some large captive falcons breed easily, creating a surplus on legal markets. These birds are then offered to local administrations for "re-introduction" into the wild to reduce pigeon populations.
Falcons used for hunting also catch endangered species themselves.
Finally, the sport of free rock climbing, especially in Slovenia, is a threat to birds. More popular in the spring because of lower temperatures, this is also the time when birds of prey including eagle owls, golden eagles and peregrine falcons make their nests on the rock shelves of climbable cliffs.
Bird conservationists have had their share of battles with hunters, falconers and climbers in CEE. Ill-trained hunters and falconers are particularly difficult, known for spreading poor ecological messages to others, including the belief that birds of prey are pests.
More reliable data on the frequency of hunting, targeted species, effects on populations and smuggling would assist conservationists. There is also a strong need to create public awareness and change the public's perception of birds as pests. Threats and dangers must be known. Nests must be guarded and strong laws created and enforced.
Much can be learned from Hungarian bird protection activities, which began in the 1890s. Hungary has detailed laws against smuggling and falconry, as well as strong nature protection authorities that cooperate with hunters, volunteers and refugee centres for wounded and confiscated birds. One success of Hungary's approach is the increase of sacher falcon breeding pairs from 20 in the 1970s to over 200 today.
The Bulletin, October 2000