[WATCH] BirdLife Malta embarks on ambitious turtle dove satellite tagging project

The turtle dove's numbers have plummeted by 80% in the past 30 years, bringing about a 'serious need for a Europe-wide effort' to save the species 

BirdLife Malta embarks on ambitious turtle dove satellite tagging project

The turtle dove, known locally as il-gamiema, has always been associated with migration in Malta and Gozo, with its biannual passage in spring and autumn documented in various literature over the years. 

This beautiful bird is facing serious threats and its numbers have plummeted by 80% in the past 30 years. With habitat loss from industry, development and agriculture along with hunting, there is the serious need for a Europe-wide effort to save this endangered species.

In June 2015 the IUCN acknowledged the decline of the species placing the bird on the Red List and forcing the government to enact a moratorium on spring hunting.

This immediately triggered the opportunity to study these birds further. So far, thanks to the bird ringing scheme, it was common knowledge that the birds passing over Malta were mainly arriving from Italy and eastern Europe. 

It was time to know more and BirdLife Malta embarked on a new project in which turtle doves were tagged with satellite tags. These high-tech trackers weigh only 5g and do not harm the birds in any way. They transmit hits through the satellite system giving the accurate location of the birds. 

The aim is to understand where the birds are wintering in Africa, how long the migration takes, and which are the important stopover sites for resting and refueling. More importantly, it enables us to know more about the impact of hunting on these birds, especially where the birds killed in Malta are originating from.

BirdLIfe said it had so far attached five tags and the data collected was already showing amazing migratory journeys. The first turtle dove was tagged at Simar Nature Reserve in April 2016. The bird migrated to the south of Italy where it probably bred. And then in late August it started its migration south to Africa. It ended up wintering in Nigeria. When spring arrived, the bird made its return to the exact same area, completing another breeding cycle. Unfortunately BirdLife lost track of the bird this summer.

April 2017’s moratorium on spring hunting offered a better opportunity to better study these birds. Another four turtle doves were tagged in spring this year and and their journey followed. One bird was unfortunately lost after a few days over Gozo while the other three continued on. One ended up in Italy, another in Slovakia and another on the border between Bulgaria and Romania. Two of these birds are transmiting up to this very day – one from Burkina Faso and another one from Cameroon. 

BirdLife Malta has always used scientific research and facts to base its advocacy and lobbying strategies and firmly believes this will help it to join European-wide conservation efforts to save the turtle dove across the continent.

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