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.

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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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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