food news

Millions of Birds Are Vacuumed to Death Every Year for Our Martini Olives

Olives have a better flavor if they’re harvested at night, which is bad news for the birds who tend to sleep in those trees.

by Jelisa Castrodale
22 May 2019, 7:05am

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump stood behind a podium in Hackberry, Louisiana, spitting hyperbolic half-truths about the Green New Deal, assorted Democrats and the eternal shittiness of LaGuardia airport (OK, that was one of the truth-truths). He also spent 30 bewildering seconds talking about bird cemeteries.

“You want to see a bird cemetery? Go under a windmill sometime,” he said. “You’ll see the saddest—you got every type of bird. You know, in California you go to jail for five years if you kill a bald eagle. You go under a windmill, you see them all over the place. Not a good situation.”

First, no, I do not want to see a bird cemetery. But if someone does want or need to see a large quantity of bird carcasses, European olive groves have them by the millions. According to an absolutely horrifying report from Nature, every year, more than 2 million birds are literally sucked out of trees and killed by the machinery used to harvest olives in Portugal and Spain.

The olive season stretches from October through January and, unfortunately, it overlaps with the migration patterns of millions of birds who seek out the warmer climates in those countries. Olives have a better flavour if they’re harvested at night when the temperatures are cooler, which is tragically bad news for the birds who tend to sleep in those trees.

“The machinery is perfectly fine if used during the day, as birds are able to see and escape while they are operating… However, during the night they use very strong lights which confuse the birds and lead to their death as they are ‘sucked in’ by the tractor,” Vanessa Mata, the lead researcher at Portugal’s Research Center in Biodiversity and Genetic Resources told The Independent.

The birds affected include several different warblers, thrushes, wagtails, and finches, as well as the common robin. “It’s a real problem with serious environmental repercussions that transcend the Andalusian and national geographical limits, affecting the environmental values of several countries within the European Union,” the Andalusian Ministry of Environment and Planning wrote in a report.

The Ministry estimates that more than two million birds are vacuumed to their deaths every year and, as a result, it is asking for changes to the harvesting process. (It would also like the machinery operators to stop illegally selling the dead birds to “rural hotels for consumption as ‘fried bird.’”)

In Portugal, the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests (INCF) estimates that an average of 6.4 birds are killed in every hectare of olive groves; those groves cover 15,000 hectares in the country’s Alentejo region. But – disappointingly – the INCF president has decided that 96,000 dead birds aren’t “statistically relevant” enough to prohibit nighttime harvesting. He said that they’ll just count the bird carcasses later this year, and maybe decide what to do then. ( Nature reports that the other countries with significant numbers of olive groves, France and Italy, have not released any data on bird deaths.)

“Numbers of farmland birds in Europe have plummeted by 55 percent over the last three decades and this is another shocking example of how modern agricultural practices are impacting our bird populations, including some UK species passing through the region,” Martin Harper, the director of conservation for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told The Independent.

I’d be willing to trade slightly less flavourful olives for the lives of several million birds. Because nobody – honestly, NOBODY – wants to see a bird cemetery.