Mixed fortunes for Malta’s breeding birds

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Malta Breeding Bird AtlasMalta is still the only country in Europe without a viable breeding population of any bird of prey or finch species, despite having available breeding habitat and food supplies. This was just one of the results revealed in the first Malta Breeding Bird Atlas, launched by BirdLife Malta today with the attendance of Minister for Resources and Rural Affairs George Pullicino at the Natural History Museum in Mdina.

A total of 29 species were confirmed breeding in Malta in 2008, along with a further eight that were listed as ‘Possible’ or ‘Probable’. The results of the Atlas show that some species, such as the Spanish Sparrow, Zitting Cisticola and Sardinian Warbler, were widespread and recorded in most areas. However songbirds (finches), which are targeted by trappers, and raptors, which are heavily persecuted by poachers, were either extremely rare or not present.

The Atlas also highlighted the continued importance of the Maltese islands for its seabird populations, with internationally important populations of Cory’s Shearwater, Yelkouan Shearwater and European Storm-petrel.

“This is an important milestone for bird conservation in Malta,” said Mr Joe Sultana, one of the co-authors of the Atlas. “By repeating these standardised surveys every five years, we will now be able to chart the changing fortunes of all of our breeding birds. This is critical if we are to safeguard our breeding bird species into the future and their habitats.”

Over 30 local and international ornithologists took part in the surveys, which recorded over 54,000 birds during the spring and summer of 2008. The Atlas examines the breeding distribution of all of Malta’s breeding bird species in 2008 by mapping every species on a 1km square grid across the whole of Malta and Gozo.

The conservation benefits of the 2008 ban on spring hunting are also evident in the Atlas results, with species such as Collared Dove and Common Swift experiencing their best breeding seasons on record. Atlas fieldworkers also recorded Turtle Doves in several squares, with birds carrying out breeding displays and pairs in suitable breeding habitat in the summer. BirdLife Malta Conservation Manager Dr Andre Raine, who co-ordinated the study, pointed to the fact that with the opening of the Rabbit hunting season on June 1st these pairs of Turtle Doves soon disappeared.

“It is evident that the breeding bird species which are targeted by trappers and poachers have now been reduced to small remnant populations in Malta. In 2008, Malta still does not have a viable breeding population of species such as the Common Kestrel, and no breeding Peregrine Falcons or Barn Owls which bred in significant numbers in the past.” said Dr Raine. (1)

“Malta is also the only place in Europe where the spring is not heralded by the songs of breeding wild finches. With the ban on spring hunting and the end of trapping in Malta, we will hopefully see a reversal of fortunes for species such as these. However this will only happen if the law is properly enforced.” Dr. Raine concluded.

Using standard methodologies that are utilised in other European Atlases (2), the first Breeding Bird Atlas of Malta was carried out in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology (3) and sponsored by the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairs.

The “Malta Breeding Bird Atlas 2008” can be purchased from the Ghadira and Is-Simar nature reserves, some bookshops and directly from BirdLife Offices.

1) The last Peregrine Falcon was shot in 1982 (Sultana and Gauci, 1982) and the last Barn Owl pair was killed in 1988 (Fenech and Balzon, 1988).

2) The Atlas used standardised methods used in other European Atlas projects and breeding categories recommended by the European Bird Census Council (EBCC). For more information on the EBCC please visit: http://www.ebcc.info/index.php

3) The British Trust for Ornithology is an independent scientific research trust, which investigates the populations, movements and ecology of wild birds in the Birtish Islands. The trust specialises in the design and implementation of wild bird surveys. For more information please visit: http://www.bto.org/

Photo shows front cover of the Malta Breeding Bird Atlas.

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