On peerless ornithology
Joe Sultana, John Borg, Charles Gauci & Victor Falzon: The Breeding Birds of Malta, Birdlife Malta, 2011, 379 pp, cloth.
The birds of Malta may be classified into three porous types: species that migrate over the islands in spring and autumn; birds that breed in cooler climes and spend the winter months here; and species that actually breed in Malta. Birdlife Malta’s latest looks at the third type.
The book does two things. It is an update (in the strongest sense of the term – some of the data are barely a couple of months old) of earlier works on breeding birds, an essential project considering the new species that have bred here in recent years and the considerable changes in the breeding status of others.
It also brings together some of the best-available research on Malta’s breeding birds in a definitive volume, saving time for researchers who would otherwise have to sift through 150-plus years of scientific papers, bird-ringing schedules, daily logs, and historical sources.
On both fronts, The Breeding Birds of Malta is a tour de force which should be read in conjunction with the equally-muscular Malta Breeding Bird Atlas 2008 (Birdlife Malta, 2009).
There are at least two reasons why Birdlife Malta’s research and publications are of such consistently high quality.
First, they are the result of thousands of hours of fieldwork. Bird-watching and -ringing have always been the mainstay of the society’s ornithological knowledge-in-progress.
This book reminds us that in natural history there can be no substitute for the direct observation of plants and animals in their habitat.
Second, Birdlife Malta has always sought to place its research within a network of international scholarship. In part this was due to earlier alignments with hallowed British institutions like the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
I can think of few organisations that have put our colonial legacy (and that includes language) to such productive cultivation.
More recently, the society’s incorporation into Birdlife International opened up new opportunities for various collaborations.
The book under review fits the bill well. It is not written for self-imposed local circles but rather as a contribution to international peer-reviewed ornithology. It sets itself high standards and proceeds to meet them on every count.
For one, it is impeccably produced and written and brings together text, diagrams, and scores of photographs – most of which were taken by local enthusiasts – into a layout which is beautiful and rich but somehow never dense.
The numbers are not entirely depressing for a small ‘ornithophagous’ (as Hubert Lynes called us in 1912) island.
Malta has 18 regular and 27 irregular breeding birds that range from seabirds and falcons to the ubiquitous Spanish Sparrow.
There are also eight introduced and feral species and a good number of historical and/or doubtful records. The last may survive in place names, of which ‘Wied ta’ għoxx il-ħida’ (‘Valley of the kite’s nest’, apparently) is a curious example.
As one might expect, the book is arranged by species. The regular breeders get a chapter each and over two-thirds of the total content.
The beef includes information on field characters, status, habitat, distribution, breeding behaviour, population and conservation trends, as well as vignettes from various studies. These last tend to be as fascinating as they are scientifically important.
We learn for example that the Spanish Sparrow is both a migrant and a resident breeder. On October 23, 2006, migrating sparrows gave Comino a try after they were ‘called’ down by local sparrows; apparently unimpressed, they resumed their journey less than a minute later.
We also know that the miniscule Zitting Cisticola will defend its nest against the metre-long Western Whip Snake and the mighty weasel, and that satellite-tagged Yelkouan Shearwater number EE01105 spent three days foraging 200 km southeast of Malta before flying back in the middle of the night to feed its young.
Among the most interesting research explored in the book one finds information on new breeding birds and changes in status for older-established ones.
Changes in habitat have a profound effect. Common and Pallid Swifts, for example, have made good use of the Sliema concrete rainforest and especially Portomaso.
The Birdlife reserves at Għadira and Simar are a haven for nesting Moorhens, Reed Warblers, Little Ringed Plovers, and most recently the spectacular Black-winged Stilt.
In the opposite direction, new forms of agriculture and the never-ending building boom have decimated breeding populations of Short-toed Larks and Corn Buntings. In this sense the volume is also a valuable contribution to population ecology.
The Breeding Birds of Malta is a superb book. Enthusiasts will read it from cover to cover. People with a passing interest in birds will want to have it on their bookshelves as a companion to the chirps coming from the ventilator.
Perhaps most importantly, scientists based elsewhere will refer to it both as a collection of data on particular species and as a case study of small-island ornithology.