The Eurasian Blackcap’s beautiful song has inspired humanity for centuries.

But in Cyprus today, it is silenced by industrial-level illegal trapping using invisible nets or glue sticks: all to fuel an unlawful trade in local delicacies, run by organised criminals.

Could education be the solution?

The Eurasian Blackcap is one of seven flagship birds in BirdLife's Flight for Survival campaign to raise awareness of the scope and scale of the illegal killing of migratory birds.

For many people, it’s an iconic sound of the countryside: a rich, complex musical whistle which culminates in a loud, high-pitched crescendo. It is so strident that you might not be able to work out where it’s coming from: the tiny Eurasian Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla, a handsome woodland-dwelling warbler. Nicknamed the “mock nightingale”, its mellifluous music has inspired artists through the ages. 

The Eurasian Blackcap’s life is beset with great adversity. As it migrates through the Mediterranean en route to its European breeding grounds, hundreds of thousands of birds end up tangled in vast, near-invisible “mist-nets” or unable to take off from perches that have been secretly coated with glue. Those birds that don’t perish from the initial shock can struggle in pain for hours.

The reason behind this shocking activity can be summarised in one word: ambelopoulia, a traditional dish made of Eurasian Blackcaps and other songbirds, boiled or grilled and eaten whole. For centuries, songbirds have been trapped for food across the Mediterranean – but in Cyprus, the large-scale industry it has become is a far cry from past traditions. Although banned since 1974, the demand for this delicacy is driving a lucrative black market. Restaurants that serve the dish can fetch up to €80 per plate. Run by career trappers, some involved in organised crime, this racket can make €15 million per year.

In an ironic twist, poachers use the Eurasian Blackcap’s beautiful song against it, playing it on illegal electronic calling devices to lure them towards the traps. The result is devastating, but the decimation is part of a far bigger problem: although aimed at the Eurasian Blackcap, the traps are indiscriminate, and have been found to catch at least 155 bird species - including those with decreasing populations, such as the Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio and Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops.  Unwanted birds are simply killed and discarded. According to a study by BirdLife Cyprus, 2.3 million birds were illegally killed in Cyprus during autumn 2016 alone.

Illegal trapping in Cyprus

Nowhere has this been worse than Cyprus’ British Sovereign Base Area, spanning the Dhekelia and Famagusta districts. 2016’s record level of illegal killing at this “blackspot” sparked an urgent response from the UK government. But action isn’t just coming from the outside - BirdLife Cyprus is working tirelessly to end this practice on their home soil. 

Illegal bird killing is a complex issue, especially when it is so ingrained in the culture of local people. BirdLife Cyprus knows that to end this crisis, it’s not enough to simply enforce laws. They also need to change minds. One of the best ways to do this is to inspire a love and respect for nature at a very young age. Their large-scale education programme extends to schools, and they also released a highly popular birdwatching book for children – the start of what will hopefully become a new movement for nature in the country.

Their awareness-raising also extends to adult audiences. They speak out across a wide range of public media in order to dispel the myth shared by many citizens that bird trapping is still the harmless, small-scale tradition it once was. And the movement has already begun making a huge difference. Since 2016, mist netting has decreased by a staggering 72% at Dhekelia Sovereign Base Area, and in Cyprus overall, the estimated number of birds trapped is less than a third of what it was. Many members of the public now support the new initiatives, reporting that they were simply unaware of that illegal bird killing was a serious issue.

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