Nearly on the verge of extinction: European Lanner close to its end

The Slender-billed Curlew is nowadays considered extinct, with no birds officially observed in the last nearly 20 years or so worldwide (Corso, et al. 2014; Kirwan, et al.2015), while the Bald Ibis seems to be recovering with a rather small but increasing wild breeding population in Morocco (though the other wild very small one from Syria is gone forever) and some reintroduction projects elsewhere around Europe or “feral” populations (Spain, Austrian and Italian Alps, Turkey).

However, when thinking about extinction, we too often forget some bird species such as the true Rock Dove. Something that has apparently and also officially been neglected for example in the European Community and in EU environmental legislation and few people including “specialists” in that field care about are the subspecies of animals, meaning all those taxa that are not considered separate or so-called “good” species but simply subsp. of a given nominate species that is not decreasing as a whole.  In fact, to deserve strong attention and protection, bird species (and all animals in general) need to be declining or vulnerable or declared endangered species.

Many subspecies are indeed protected in Europe and actually considered in need of protection and thus included in Annex I and Annex II. But this only happens when these subspecies are populations of declining species as a whole. If they are subsp. of a species that is in good “health” elsewhere, they are not included into any Annex. Therefore, very few conservation measures, action plans and funds are implemented or allocated.

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A pair of European Lanners (Falco biarmicus feldeggii) in flight over a breeding site in Sicily (Photo: Stefania Merlino)

First of all, the idea of a “subspecies” is a human concept and a “category” into which we like to put all kinds of animals. Apart from being a “dynamic” concept, susceptible to continuous change due to the natural speciation process on the one hand and the vast research and different opinions “splitting” or “clustering” taxa on the other. Moreover, if a population of birds (animals, plants in general) is identifiable and has peculiar characteristic features, this population is unique. Therefore, if and when we lose this population, it will be lost forever.

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Andrea Corso searching for European Lanner at the Majella National Park with his Leica Noctivid 10×42

It doesn’t matter if we call it a species, subspecies, taxon or taxa…because when this group of birds is gone, it will never return and will thus never be seen again on this earth. It doesn’t matter to me that Caravaggio’s paintings are of higher quality and more emotional than those of Correggio, or Pinturicchio. When somebody destroys or steals a painting by an artist, be it a genius or an average one, the painting will be gone forever in any case.

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Adult female of European Lanner at its perching site (Stefania Merlino)

Having said that, next to the Slender-billed Curlew (in case there are still some left somewhere), one of the birds in greatest danger of extinction in the Western Palearctic is the majestic, spectacular European Lanner Falco biarmicus feldeggii, a real jewel of the world falcons fauna. Since always considered scarce and localized, with a great percentage of the breeding pairs found in Italy, it is today facing a continuous, inexorable and quick decline of all of its world population.

It is a subspecies of the widespread and rather common Lanner Falco biarmicus biarmicus, which has good breeding populations across a very wide range all over Africa and the Middle East. For that reason, the EU has until now almost completely ignored the fact that this bird is disappearing and very little has been done so far. What is even worse is that most “specialists” have reported again and again the same breeding pairs estimations in all their works, often without actually truly checking the reliability of the available data, and thus ignoring or even denying the problem.

Over the last decade, I have been birding around Italy and the WP in search of lanners, witnessing a massive and incredibly fast decrease of the population. This spring, I carried out my field observations using my new Leica products: the amazing Leica Noctivid 10×42 and the Leica APO Televid spotting scope. Observations are often done in a typical late spring-early summer southern Mediterranean climate and condition: hot, humid, hazy, and sunny. Age determination of the pairs or also the single birds observed around, chiefly in the breeding sites, is difficult but crucial as for the breeding success adult birds are more important than immature ones.

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A typical Sicilian breeding site of European Lanner

Therefore, it is absolutely of vital importance to have the best instruments on the market, so that the moult contrast between old, juvenile retained P10 (outermost primary) and or S1 with the new adult-type remiges, as well as any new-old feathers on mantle and tail and the exact pattern of the underwing coverts and breast-flanks are all clearly studied and observed in the greatest detail possible. The crispy, almost three-dimensional and incomparably neutral imagine provided by the Noctivid is therefore the very best I could wish for, and my Leica binoculars have become my best field companion.

When studying this sensitive and shy species, which is easily disturbed at the nest, I stay as far away as possible trying not to alert the adults and juveniles… a wide-angle field of view combined with a sharp imagine is essential to count how many fledglings are in the nest, how many juveniles are near to fledge or how many downy young there were compared to how many actually finally fly.  I would never be able to observe so well from a distance with anything less than my Leica instruments, and I have never found any devices of similar quality. Unfortunately, as amazing and emotional my observations might be, the result remains the same… no more than 30% of the world population estimated in the years ’90 and ’00 is left, or even less.

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Adult male of European Lanner at its perching site (Photo: Stefania Merlino)

As long as the EU and all the environmentalists don’t start to seriously protect this fantastic bird, its total extinction is near, too near. As long as bird photographers do not learn that a photo from too close a distance is nothing more than the millionth “like” but is instead a real threat to the species and its breeding success, as long as the EU does not declare strictly illegal the keeping of a feldeggii for falconry (regardless if “presumably” born in captivity, simply to have it must be declared illegal!), this bird will quickly disappear. Indeed, falconry is one of the main causes of decline, as still nowadays many (in some areas most) of the young are illegally taken from the nest. As there are still many more causes, urgent action is required in order to avoid its extinction in the near future.

More Info
Corso, Andrea; Jansen, Justin; Kokay, Szabolcs (2014). A review of the identification criteria and variability of the Slender-billed Curlew. “British Birds” 107: 339-370.
Kirwan, Guy; Porter, Richard; Scott, Derek (2015). Chronicle of an extinction? A review of Slender-billed Curlew records in the Middle East. “British Birds” 108: 669-682.

 

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