Europe

Millions of Birds Killed by Nighttime Harvesting in Mediterranean

Upwards of 2.5 million birds are killed each harvest season in Spain, Italy, France and Portugal.

Photo courtesy of Junta de Andalucia
May. 22, 2019
By Daniel Dawson
Photo courtesy of Junta de Andalucia

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New research from Portugal’s Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests has found that mil­lions of birds are killed each olive har­vest­ing season in the Mediterranean basin.

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.

A good part of these birds are sold by the oper­a­tors of the har­vesters or the coop­er­a­tives to the rural hotel indus­try for con­sump­tion. This prac­tice is ille­gal.- Junta de Andalucia

The group esti­mates that in Andalusia, 2.6 mil­lion birds are killed each year during the har­vest, while in Portugal an addi­tional 96,000 birds die. In France and Italy, sim­i­lar prac­tices are used, but sta­tis­tics on bird deaths during the har­vest season are not kept.

Bright lights from the super-inten­sive har­vest­ing machine dis­ori­ent the birds, which are not noc­tur­nal, and pre­vent them from escap­ing when the night­time har­vest­ing begins. Olives are fre­quently har­vested at night as the cooler tem­per­a­tures pre­serve their aro­matic fla­vors.

See more: Environmental News

“Suction olive har­vest­ing at night kills these legally pro­tected birds on a cat­a­strophic scale as they rest in the bushes,” researchers Luis da Silva and Vanessa Mata wrote in an open letter to the jour­nal Nature.

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However, during the day, the same prac­tices are not nearly as dan­ger­ous for the birds, which are able to escape when they hear the machines coming.

“The machin­ery is per­fectly fine if used during the day, as birds are able to see and escape while they are oper­at­ing,” Mata told British news orga­ni­za­tion, the Independent.

Many of the birds affected by noc­tur­nal super-inten­sive har­vest­ing are clas­si­fied as “rest­ing species” by the European Union Bird Directive, which enti­tles them to spe­cial pro­tec­tions.

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“They should not be sub­ject to dis­tur­bance in the rest period,” Domingos Leitão, from Portuguese Society for the Study of Birds, said. “If the birds in one row of olive trees are fright­ened, they fly to another; the Birds Directive says that they should not be dis­turbed during the rest period.”

Increased aware­ness of the sit­u­a­tion has led the Junta de Andalucia, the region’s local gov­ern­ment, to inves­ti­gate the prob­lem in an effort to try and leg­is­late a solu­tion before the next olive har­vest begins in October.

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During the inves­ti­ga­tion the junta found that many olive pro­duc­ers were taking the dead birds and sell­ing them to local hotels as “pajar­ito frito” or fried bird, a prac­tice that is highly ille­gal, espe­cially when these fried birds include endan­gered species.

“According to both the Civil Guard and the [Ministry of the Environment], a good part of these birds are sold by the oper­a­tors of the har­vesters or the coop­er­a­tives to the rural hotel indus­try for con­sump­tion,” the junta said. “This prac­tice is ille­gal and highly con­demned by the Ministry of Health due to a lack of suf­fi­cient health guar­an­tees for public health.”

No charges have yet been brought against any grow­ers or hotels. The Junta de Andalucia has so far con­cluded that the best way for­ward is to ban super-inten­sive har­vest­ing prac­tices at night.

“The best option to end the prob­lem is that super-inten­sive har­vest­ing of olive groves is banned during night­time hours, which would pre­vent migra­tory birds from being caught by the machine’s spot­lights,” the junta said.

However, no leg­isla­tive action has yet been taken to ban the prac­tice and advo­cates expect another “mas­sacre” to come next har­vest season if noth­ing is done.

“When neg­a­tive impacts like these are detected, the author­i­ties must act swiftly and accord­ingly,” Nuno Sequeira, head of Portuguese envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion Quercus, said. “We are talk­ing about hun­dreds of thou­sands of dead birds.”

So far the Portuguese gov­ern­ment has acknowl­edged the issue, but has yet to take action. The issue has been largely ignored in both France and Italy.

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“Local gov­ern­ments and local, national and inter­na­tional com­mu­ni­ties urgently need to assess the impact of the prac­tice and take steps to end it,” da Silva and Mata said.