If this is true...

It disgusts me to read that 14 short-toed eagles may have been shot illegally, so many years after the problem of illegal hunting was supposed to have been solved

On Monday, The Times carried a story under the following headline: “All but one of 15 Short-toed Eagles ‘shot dead’ – Birdlife.”

That is the sort of headline that always grabs my attention, and the sort of story I would usually post on my Facebook wall, because… I’m a geek. Sorry, but it can’t be helped. I have a fundamental human right to be a geek, and like the geek I am… I like birds.

Actually, I don’t mind admitting that… I love birds. Except maybe the pigeon that keeps shitting all over my terrace, of course. But wait… no, I love him, too. Because, for some mysterious reason, I seem to have evolved this unique ability to distinguish between a bird which shits, and the shit itself. Trust me, it’s an important distinction to make.

In any case: those feathered descendants of the dinosaurs have held a fascination for me since I was a very small child. I was a member of Birdlife when it was still called The Malta Ornithological Society. (Oh, and on this note, may I pay a small belated tribute to Joe Sultana: an extraordinary man… one of very few people who could genuinely be described as a trailblazing pioneer).

So naturally, it disgusts me to read that 14 short-toed eagles may have been shot illegally, so many years after the problem of illegal hunting was supposed to have been solved. And short-toed eagles, too…

OK, I’ll allow myself this little digression. The first time I saw a short-toed eagle, it was through a pair of binoculars (which I still own) at Buskett, in the early 1980s. You’ll never guess who taught me how to recognise one (hint: it’s not by measuring the length of its toes). It wasn’t Joe Sultana. It was Saviour Balzan. You may have heard the name before.

Anyway, it was Saviour who explained to me that you can generally identify the family of any bird of prey by the shape of its tail and wing-tips.

And that there are different families of eagles. This one is not a member of the (much larger) Aquilinae… those have shorter, pointier tails, and a much broader wing-span.

A Short-toed eagle, on the other hand, has a fan-shaped tail, a white, mottled underbelly, and – depending on age, etc – a head which is usually dark brown. It is, in fact, the most easily identifiable of the migratory raptors… except the Osprey, of course, but your chances of seeing a live specimen have now grown rather bleak.

So to come back to that Times story: if the information it contains is true, it would be utterly disgraceful. But these days – for reasons which will be obvious to readers who know me, or who have been reading this column for over 20 years - I’m taking a closer look at things before posting them online. A much closer look.

Let’s start with the headline. The sub-editor who came up with that headline was cautious enough to specify – twice – that the allegation is not 100% verified.

The use of quotation marks indicate that it was something that was said, and the dash at the end points directly towards who said it.

As far as I know, Birdlife Malta has not denied the quote attributed to it by The Times, so I think we can all safely conclude that: Yes, it’s true that Birdlife made that claim. The journalist is therefore safe to write it, and the registered editor of the newspaper he works for is safe to publish it.

Regarding the claim itself, this report specifies that: “BirdLife Malta members witnessed one of the Short-toed Eagles being shot down at Girgenti and police from the Administrative Law Enforcement (ALE) unit were called in immediately and searched the area.”

So far, we only have evidence that one bird was shot. And I would describe that evidence (as I am sure any other journalist would) as pretty compelling.

Because of the identity of the witnesses – they’re geeks like me, so they also like birds – those Birdlife members can reliably be expected to confirm their testimony, under oath, in court. So it is safe for a journalist to report that at least one protected bird was killed.

But the phrasing (‘one of the Short-toed Eagles’), and the context as a whole, create an inference that: a) there were others, and b) some of those other birds were also shot.  

On the basis of what we have seen so far, we don’t have 100% confirmation of this serious allegation yet. So was it safe to report?

I would say, yes, certainly. Because the article also states that “the [15] rare birds were observed settling in the outskirts of Siġġiewi and Rabat for the night, but only one was seen leaving on the following day.’ And ‘shots were heard during and after sunset, and all areas where the birds roosted had intense hunting going on.’

Words like ‘observed’, ‘seen’ and ‘heard’ imply there were witnesses; and the context gives us a clear indication of who they are.

This all amounts to compelling circumstantial evidence that a crime has been committed. All the same, by the end of it we still do not have fool-proof, cast-iron evidence that a specific number of birds were illegally shot.

But because the headline and text of the article specify that we are dealing with an unconfirmed allegation, and because the context is what it is... I would say it is perfectly safe to go to print with this particular story (It is, in fact, a textbook case of how to handle an unconfirmed report. Shame there’s no by-line, I would have liked to congratulate the author).

I just thought I’d share this thought process with you, because… well, that’s what I do for a living. I share my thought processes with my readers. And that’s the sort of process that goes through my head every time I read or write.

I also apologise for the deliberately punctilious, fastidious, know-it-all tone I have deliberately chosen to write in for you today, but… some things do need spelling out.

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