Athena is the name of an ancient Greek goddess associated with wisdom, handicraft and warfare. It’s also the name of a special partner of HOS/BirdLife Greece: a European Turtle-dove. Athena the bird was tagged with a satellite transmitter last year, and gave HOS the rare opportunity to fly along with her during her autumn migration.
Unlike the goddess, there’s nothing war-like about Athena the Turtle-dove. A war is being waged against her species, however: since 1980, illegal hunting and habitat destruction have wiped out 80% of European Turtle-doves. Our Greek partner, HOS, is taking action to protect them. This is their story.
A perilous expedition: from Antikythira island to southwest Sudan
Monitoring the transmitter’s signal, we watched Athena leave the island of Antikythira in mid-September last year, and reach southwest Sudan in Sub-Saharan Africa almost one month later. She covered an impressive 3,000 km to fly to her wintering grounds.
As spring came, Athena spread her wings again, to reach her breeding grounds in Europe. It’s a very dangerous journey. She needed to overcome two major obstacles: the vast, dry expanses of the Sahara Desert, and the glimmering Mediterranean Sea.
Despite such intimidating obstacles, Athena made it! After crossing the desert in Chad and Libya, she stopped for a short rest in coastal Cyrenaica, Libya, before setting off again to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Soaring over Kythira Island, she reached the south-eastern Peloponnese. After two days and two nights, she landed in the Thessalian plain, in central Greece: a popular feeding area for migratory seed-eating birds. But as a migratory bird, her journey is never really over: next, Athena will head north, towards breeding grounds in the Balkans.
As impressive and intimidating as crossing entire deserts and seas may seem, those are not the most serious threats that Athena has to face. Not even close. Habitat destruction and illegal hunting are far, far deadlier threats…
Habitat destruction and illegal hunting have wiped out 80% of European Turtle-doves
A symbol of beauty, love and partnership from ancient times, the Turtle-dove is the only European species of the Columbidae family that undertakes long-distance migration. And since 1980, the species’ populations have declined dramatically: 80% of European Turtle-doves have been wiped out.
It’s officially classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The destruction of natural habitats has played a major role in the Turtle Doves’ decline, but illegal hunting in Mediterranean countries is also a crucial factor.
Spring hunting is illegal in Greece since 1983, but it’s still going on. It’s especially troublesome in the Ionian Islands in Western Greece, where the word “tradition” is misused to justify the despicable, criminal act of killing a defenceless bird.
Even with Coronavirus-related restrictions, poachers are still out there shooting migrating Turtle-doves.
At HOS/BirdLife Greece, we want to make this atrocious practice a thing of the past. We are actively disseminating information on the dangers of illegal spring hunting, and demanding proper law enforcement. We want Athena to keep flying.
Satellite transmitters: an effective tool for nature protection
Satellite transmitters are an important scientific tool to protect Turtle-doves. The light transmitter, weighing only a few grams, transmits signals through satellite, allowing us to trace migratory routes and identify important stopover sites, as well as wintering and breeding areas. This information helps inform conservation measures on the ground.
We’re running the project in the Antikythira Bird Observatory, where every spring and autumn, thousands of birds are monitored – mainly through ringing – which provides valuable data for the study of the Eastern Mediterranean flyway.
So far, five Turtle-doves have been tagged with satellite transmitters. Next autumn, if Coronavirus-related restrictions allow it, we will tag even more birds, enabling us to study their migratory routes from Europe to Africa and back.
The satellite telemetry project that allowed us to monitor Athena’s fascinating journeys is an initiative of The Swedish Museum of Natural History (Naturhistoriska riksmuseet) and HOS/BirdLife Greece, funded by the Marie-Claire Cronstedts Foundation and supported by SANI S.A and the A.G. Leventis Foundation.