european raptors

Cyprus: An Island of Birds

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

Looking at the grifon vulture nest in the cliffs at Limassol

By Rebekah Smith, Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Driving up a dusty incline through an ancient olive tree grove, we watched as construction workers altered one of the few remaining undeveloped areas on the island of Cyprus in order to build a new road. In Cyprus, old farmlands and wild areas are scarce; however, they serve as havens for the wildlife there, including many species of passerines and raptors.

On a hot day in mid-June, we were scanning the landscape for a flash of blue amongst the green-brown leaves of the stout olive trees. The European roller (Coracias garrulous) population within Cyprus experienced a recent decline, so BirdLife Cyprus has been monitoring the population at historical nesting sites across the island. This historical nesting site was becoming a highway. In Cyprus, the farmland is actually valuable to the wildlife, because human settlement and agriculture has existed there since approximately 8,200 BC. When farmland is lost to tourism and development, it’s a loss for the wildlife, specifically for the nesting bird species of Cyprus.

Leaving the newly forming roadway and heading toward a more narrow, unofficial path, I saw my first European roller sitting on a telephone wire. The vibrant turquoise bird made our day trip across the island well worth our time. This is just one of the many projects BirdLife Cyprus has taken on to protect, study, and educate people about the wild birds of Cyprus. From the start of the decade, BirdLife Cyprus researchers conducted surveys and searched desperately for proof of the successful nesting of griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus) on the island. They finally determined that there were only six to eight individuals left.

In an attempt to prevent the disappearance of the only species of vulture from the island, BirdLife Cyprus coordinated a program with Crete, Greece, in which they captured and transported 25 vultures and brought them to Cyprus to be released in hopes that the species might regain its hold on the island. Since then, they’ve been observing the griffons closely. One pair in particular has captured the attention of BirdLife Cyprus’s head research scientist Christina Ieronymidou. Nestled in the cliffs of Limassol, we watched the pair of vultures—one huddled over their clutch while the other perched close by, scanning the cliff lined shore.

Christina mentioned under her breath that the other vultures in the colony must have headed towards the center of the island for the day in search of carrion, which is not a frequently available resource on the island, as there are only seven known species of mammals nationwide. In contrast, nearly 400 species of birds have been recorded on the island of Cyprus.

The disregard for the ecological importance of birds on the island is a cultural remnant that’s been passed down through generations. In the past, the passerines that migrate through Cyprus along with those that are natives, were a valuable source of protein when no other food was available to the inhabitants. Generations later, they are no longer a necessity for survival but rather a delicacy. During the spring and fall migrations, poachers set up mist nets and lime sticks to capture thousands of unsuspecting birds, even using call recordings to attract them. If the bird species caught is not of culinary interest, they are still killed and discarded.

This 15 million Euro, illegal operation is the source of BirdLife Cyprus’s biggest struggles. Their part in the scheme is mostly lobbying for the passing of bills that would protect the animals, although new legislations could call for decreased fines for poachers and the ability to bring already cooked birds to restaurants, making the illegal birds harder to identify. Pictures leaked of a politician partaking in a passerine dish suggest that authorities may also be involved in support of bird poaching. BirdLife Cyprus is one of the only voices on the island moving against these new legislations and attempting to protect the 150 million migrating birds that pass through the country during each round of migration.

BirdLife Cyprus claims the role of wildlife advocate for the entire island. BirdLife Cyprus works to educate the community, lobby for legislations in favor of wildlife, work closely with the Game and Fauna service on the island, and even sometimes rescue abandoned chicks.

Although BirdLife Cyprus is not a rehabilitation facility, they constantly receive phone calls about abandoned and injured birds. In most cases the birds have to be euthanized by a small animal veterinarian, as there are no exotic veterinarians that know how to treat injured birds on the island. In some cases though, such as the common swift chick (Apus apus) that was delivered to their doorstep, the birds are lucky enough to get a second chance.

feeding the baby swift 1.jpg

Before leaving the office of BirdLife Cyprus, I watched their Development Officer,Elena Markitani, crush the heads of some fresh mealworms and beetles purchased at a local pet store by myself and the assistant researcher Yiannis Christodoulides on the way back from the roller surveys. She gathered them in a pair of tweezers and used her thumb to open the fragile beak of the baby swift. She was trying to force-feed the chick who had suddenly decided it wanted to refuse food—a sign of being ready to leave the nest, despite the fact that it was largely underweight and could not yet fly. I later learned that the baby swift survived it’s last few days of shoebox rehab and was released, hopefully with a brighter future, thanks to BirdLife Cyprus and all they are doing to help the island birds.

As I return to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for the remainder of my summer education internship, I feel encouraged by the enthusiasm we share with BirdLife Cyprus concerning the protection of wildlife, though the ecosystems in Pennsylvania and Cyprus are in stark contrast. Looking back at the history of Hawk Mountain, I see that BirdLife Cyprus is in a similar position to our founders. Humans are driven to hunt birds all over the world, however it is also our responsibility to make sure that there remains a balance in the populations that we impact. It will take a group effort to reduce the negative impacts that humans have had on wildlife, and it’s good to know that we have allies, even on the other side of the world.

Raptor Reflection from Across the Pond

By Zoey Greenberg, Former Education Intern
Hawk Mountain Sanctuary

Voices silenced and the sound of swishing wings flooded the blind. Our faces tilted towards the sky and I felt palpable awe take over our family as we watched magnificent birds swirl against a cornflower blue sky. We were perched on wooden benches looking out onto the sheep-peppered hills of mid-western Wales while visiting Gigrin Farm Red Kite Feeding Centre, a raptor oasis and primary contributor to the rehabilitation of the red kite (Milvus milvus).  

The kites took to the sky as soon as the rumbling of the “meat truck” was heard.

The kites took to the sky as soon as the rumbling of the “meat truck” was heard.

Each week the feeding center tosses out a quarter ton of sliced beef for red kites, buzzards (Buteo buteo), and rooks (Corvus frugilegus). For the price of six pounds (entrance fees pay for the on-site rehabilitation of injured raptors brought in by the public), we entered the blind of our choice and waited with the kites, gathering and perching in anticipation of man, shovel, and meat. Suddenly, we heard the rumbling of an approaching vehicle, and the kites took to the sky in a swooping ballet of excitement. As morsels were flung into the air, the birds responded in a paradox of frenzied hunger and practiced grace. They positioned themselves in a seemingly organized line, streaming towards the ground in quick succession with talons open. When successful, the kites would float up to their own pocket of air and eat on the wing, bringing a yellow foot to their curved head in an admirable maneuver of private dining.

Corvids remained on the ground, stealing morsels whenever possible.

Corvids remained on the ground, stealing morsels whenever possible.

Red kites form a pecking order similar to other gregarious raptors, and the first smatterings of meat were snatched up by the eldest birds. Eventually younger kites joined the mix, followed by cautious rooks and crows. An amusing yet primal attitude of wariness hung over the field, and as I watched it became clear that each species employed their own unique set of tricks in order to obtain each snack. The corvids remained on the ground, alert but cleverly filling their crop at every opportune moment until a fat pouch formed beneath their shiny black beak. Finally, two buzzards plopped themselves down in the middle of the commotion, ducking when swooped upon but holding their ground as they gingerly hopped about, stabbing the ground with their powerful feet.

Birds danced, and time slid away. The sun dipped below the hills as the red kites continued to cartwheel towards the ground. As I surveyed the blind, I saw unanimous tranquility in the faces of my companions, and I realized that the kites leave an impressionable mark on the many minds that watch them each day, each week, each year. However, it was not always this way. In this region, concern for raptors is a heartening step forward following an era of persecution that plagued the red kites of Wales for the better part of the 18th century.

A buzzard grabs a morsel of meat with its outstretched foot

A buzzard grabs a morsel of meat with its outstretched foot

The feeding station began in 1993 at the request of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) following an all too familiar story of decline. In the Middle Ages killing a red kite resulted in capital punishment. The birds were valued as street-cleaners due to their scavenging habits and were considered an integral part of landscape. However, by the 16th century, improved sanitation became a priority and the Tudor Vermin Acts were put into place. This legislature led to the establishment of a bounty on kites, as well as other raptor species.

As the kites became rare, egg collectors and taxidermists further contributed to a decrease in their numbers and by 1903 there were only a few breeding pairs left in Wales. By then, red kites had been declared extinct in both England and Scotland. In 1903, prompted by an impassioned letter written to the British Ornithologists’ Club, a self-funded group of landowners, farmers, and other concerned community members was created. Through pamphlets and the involvement of the RSPB, the last remaining nests were defended with the help of local army commanders, and attitudes towards the birds slowly began to shift. In 1989 RSPB stepped in and initiated an intensive reintroduction program to help the kites regain a foothold in their former range. The feeding station became part of this effort. Today, there are over 300 pairs in Wales alone.

A red kite and buzzard face off over a piece of meat

A red kite and buzzard face off over a piece of meat

These efforts have not gone to waste, and now on any given day, as thermals swirl above the countryside, residents in Wales can look up to see the sunset-colored tail of a red kite drawing circles in the sky. This turnaround should provide an uplifting parallel to those of us working on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean to protect raptors, seeing as the kites of Wales were subjected to shooting pressures very similar to those that defined raptor numbers along the Kitattiny ridge for many years. Different country, similar trajectory.

Sadly, there are still countries where shooting and poisoning raptors is the status quo, perceived as necessary management or an acceptable pastime. All of us in raptor conservation hope that one day every species will be free to roam the skies unharmed; however, our environmental history shows us that traditions die hard, and new conservation frameworks are rarely successful when forcefully imposed. Many rural communities do not have the tools, whether tangible or otherwise, to wake up one day and alter their collective opinion on raptors. As a global conservation community supporting a group of animals that does not see borders, we must be creative and recognize the role of human perception in the success of our work. Reintroduction programs may place birds back in the sky, but if they remain unvalued by locals, their success as a species will crumble.

As I watched the kites that day, a calm drifted over me. Each twist of a wing was prominent but subtle, isolated but surrounded. The birds' movements felt primitive. I was witnessing a creature that creates its own wind and defines its own sky with nothing but the biological potential it was born with. While there is a chance that supplying free food to raptors creates its own side effects, it was also clear that visitors walked away from that field with a newborn fondness for the natural beauty of the raptor world. At the end of our visit, I spoke with a staff member and instantly recognized a commonality in our awe and respect for the birds. He believes in the kite’s potential for changing minds, and we concluded the afternoon swapping raptor stories, smiles on our face and agreement in our hearts. Overhead, red kites wheeled and turned, making this world a better place one dive at a time.