Global bird species are placed at risk by a varying assortment of environmental and human-caused factors in our modern times, but very few (if any) likely can match the unique situation experienced by the Ortolan Bunting, a species indigenous to European and Scandinavian counties.
Though not as colorful and striking as other Buntings, the Ortolan instead is known - albeit quite provincially - as a highly desirable dinner entree.
Bird Studies Canada reports the migratory songbird is regarded as a delicacy by French gourmets, and it is served by some of the country's finest restaurants - despite the fact that its is strictly forbidden under both French and EU game laws.
In the last 30 years, the European populations of the Ortolan Bunting have declined some 84 percent, according to the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LPO, BirdLife in France). It is estimated that thousands of Ortolan Buntings are still illegally poached and killed annually in France, where fewer than 15,000 pairs remain, and the species' population has decreased by 42 percent in the past 11 years.
An important reason the species' decline is believed to be poaching, which at one time was responsible for the disappearance of 50,000 individuals annually; a number equivalent to 10 times the species population in Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands.
The Ortolan Bunting has been protected in France since 1999, meaning that its killing, transportation, use, sale or purchase is strictly forbidden, with violators of the law are subject to fines of 15,000 Euro (or around $19,000). Yet, conservation groups say that between 10,000 and 30,000 Ortolan Buntings continue to be trapped, blocking the efforts undertaken by the EU to reverse the decline of the species.
The tradition surrounding the capture, poaching and preparation of this French gourmet delight is as bizarre as the custom of dining on the tiny bird.
Traditionally, a live decoy Ortolan is placed in a small cage to attract its wild counterparts with its singing. When a wild bird approaches the trap, it is netted.
Captured Ortolans are kept and fed heavily for at least three weeks until they resemble a small fat ball. Once they reach a specific weight, the unfortunate birds are drowned in a French liqueur called Armagnac, before being prepared or sold. In France, the price for such a peculiar "delicacy" easily reaches €150 ($189 US).
Despite its illegality, some of the finest French restaurants continue to offer it on their menus.
In an effort to draw more national and media attention to the plight of the Ortolan Bunting, the LPO launched an orchestrated raid in the early morning hours of Sept. 4, when conservationists descended on poaching locations to free caged live decoy Ortolans. The birds, which had been mutilated so they could not fly, were then presented to the French authorities.
According to the LPO, it will remain vigilant and intends to inform the European Commission of the location of any poaching facilities throughout the coming poaching/migration season, so that sanctions may be taken against France for infringing its obligations under Article 5 of the Birds Directive (2009/147/CE).
- J. R. Absher
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