Meet the little bird who ate too much

In the RTE television series Charlie, the former Taoiseach is seen at dinner with his friend, French president Francois Mitterand. They are tucking into a dish of ortolan buntings.

Meet the little bird who ate too much

Monsieur le President had a penchant for eating these little birds. He even ordered them for his last meal, a few days before he died in 1996. His chef revealed that Mitterand ate two birds and “died a happy man”. If the European Commission has its way, however, future presidents won’t be able to enjoy this particular privilege.

Ortolans are caught in nets and cage traps as they migrate southwards towards Africa in the autumn. The ancient Romans stabbed out the little birds’ eyes; unable to see, buntings will gorge themselves on grain or millet seeds. They are not blinded nowadays but kept in closed boxes or blacked-out cages. Fattened to almost twice their normal weight, they are drowned and marinated in Armagnac.

“Not such a bad way to go,” quipped a chef.

They are plucked and roasted for about eight minutes before serving.

The gourmand covers himself with a napkin before taking the bird, feet first, into his mouth, holding it by the head. Everything is eaten. The bones, apart from the largest ones, are chewed. Covering the head has several functions. It traps vapours which add to the gastronomic experience and enables the diner to spit out bones without being observed. Most of all, it hides from God the shame of committing such an appalling act of cruelty to a little bird.

‘Ortolan’ comes from ‘hortus’, Latin for ‘garden’. ‘Bunting’ means ‘stocky’ or ‘plump’. The family evolved in North America; 85% of the world’s 291 bunting species are found there. Those in Europe are descended from birds which crossed the Bering Strait into Asia and colonised the Old World.

The little brown grey and green ortolan is closely related to the yellowhammer, although not as brightly coloured.

Like the yellowhammer, it tends to have a local distribution in Europe, being quite common in one locality but completely absent from similar ones in the vicinity.

Ortolans don’t breed in Ireland or Britain, although the occasional straggler gets lost on migration and turns up on our shores.

The ortolan’s song is distinctive. It’s often said that the opening four ‘dit-dit-dit-dee’ notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony imitate the yellowhammer’s song.

I believed that until, visiting the Biebrza marshes in Poland, I heard ortolans singing for the first time. Their rendition of the famous motif, with its drop of a minor third at the end, is definitely the original version. Beethoven, walking the countryside near Vienna, would certainly have heard the song. He should have acknowledged the source of the ‘lift’; ‘Rhapsody on an ortolan theme’ would be an appropriate sub-title for the world’s best known symphony.

La League pour la Protection des Oiseaux (LOP) estimates that about 30,000 ortolans are trapped illegally in the south of France during the autumn migration each year. Their numbers have declined by 50 to 75% over the last three decades. It’s not just local birds which are harvested; migrants from Scandinavia Poland and the Baltic pass through France on their way to Africa. Gourmet restaurateurs, it’s claimed, will pay up to €150 per bird. Some Michelin-star chefs argue that trapping should be permitted.

Hunting ortolans has been illegal in France since 1979 but the law is widely ignored or poorly enforced.

LOP has campaigned for years on behalf of the bird, urging Brussels to take action. On 16th June last, according to a report on the Birdlife International website, the European Commission sent a ‘reasoned opinion’ to the French Government.

It has given the authorities there two months to show that effective action is being taken to protect the bunting. If it fails to comply, France may be summoned to appear before the European Court of Justice.

Bon appetit!

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