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The Caviar of Birds

Considered to be the ultimate delicacy or the caviar of birds in France, the Ortolan has been a controversial creature for more than two decades. In 1999 the Ortolan became a protected species but that hasn’t stopped poachers from seeking them out. The tiny buntings were once a feature of the menus in the finest culinary establishments but it is now a criminal offence to serve them.

The Ortolan bunting is a migratory bird that can travel more than 4,300 miles south in order to spend the summer in Mauritania, Mali and Guinea. Around August 15, in the Landes department of France, hunters start to set up their lures in clearings in anticipation of the birds' migration. They use traps called 'matoles'. The hunt has been taking place for centuries and requires detailed preparation.

Trapping the Ortolans

Calling birds are placed adjacent to the traps to lure in the Ortolans. The artisan traps are baited so that the Ortolans simply wander in when they have landed. The birds are then placed in a cage 8 inches high, in the dark, with unlimited food and drink for 18 to 24 days. The birds double in size before they are killed and eaten.

Strange myths have developed regarding the eating of Ortolans and a subculture has formed. There are specific rituals involved in serving and eating the birds. Much to the disgust of conservationists.

The Argument

Chefs and gastronomists argue that it should be legal to eat the birds as the process of capturing them and then fattening them up up is no worse that the practices which are common at poultry farms. Some are asking for one weekend every year when it is permissible to eat the birds. Animal rights activists have a rather different view! It is widely known that the authorities in the Landes region are tolerant of poachers but the penalties for capturing any wild birds in France appear to be becoming more severe.

The Poachers

It is possible that there are still up to 1,000 active poachers who capture around 30,000 Ortolans each year despite their activities being illegal. The birds are still sold on the black market and fetch approximately €150 each. It is estimated that 5 million Ortolans fly over the Landes region every year. Those in favour of capturing the birds are campaigning for a change to the law which would permit them to trap the 30,000 Ortolans legally.

But any chance of a change in the law disappeared when the Museum of Natural History delivered a detailed report on Ortolans in France which made it clear that the number of birds which migrate along the Atlantic coast is very much in decline.

Something of a stalemate has now developed. Hunting is illegal but the trappers haven’t stopped capturing the birds and the authorities appear to be allowing them to get on with it. Enthusiasts still hold out some hope that the hunting or Ortolans will be legalised but this doesn’t look at all likely.


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