A wry view of life for the world-weary

No One Is Free, Even The Birds Are Chained To The Sky


As well as the eruption of pretty flowers, one of the joys of spring for me is the sight and sound of birds coming back to life, building their nests and chirping away. Man has always had a rather fractious relationship with the fauna with whom he is sharing his living space and the bird population has over the centuries suffered more than most. We have reported before on the dramatic decline of certain types of birds as we cheerfully hack away at the habitat they need.

Focus has turned recently on the decline in migratory birds, the species who spend the winter in winter climes (no doubt still claiming their heating allowance) and returning in time to enjoy the British summer. Recent figures published in the UK Birds report suggest that species such as whinchat, nightingale, tree pipit and spotted flycatcher which winter in the humid zone of Africa have declined by around 70% since the late 1980s and the cuckoo by 49% – I can’t recall the last time I heard a cuckoo – and the turtle dove by an astonishing 88%.

Of course, their plight isn’t helped if they are silly enough to fly over the Mediterranean island of Malta. The island has an exemption from the EU Birds Directive which enables its hunters to shoot turtle doves and quail during their spring migration, the only country in the EU to have what is termed a recreational spring hunting season which allows birds to be shot. What gets environmentalists cross is that the hunters are pretty indiscriminate in their shooting, downing many other species of birds which were meant to be protected.


France represents the next obstacle. For the gourmet one of the most treasured delicacies that could be served was the ortolan. Caught in traps set in fields during their migratory season when they fly from Africa, they are then kept in cages and force-fed grain to double their size. The coup de grace is delivered by throwing the bird into a vat of Armagnac which both drowns and marinates them at the same time. They are then cooked for eight minutes and served with heads still attached. There is a certain ritual to be observed when consuming ortolan – a napkin is placed over the diner’s head to ensure that the aroma is not dissipated and the bird is put in its entirety into the diner’s mouth and eaten whole. As the ortolan weighs less than an ounce it is hardly a satisfying meal but those that have eaten one rave about its hazelnut and gamey flavours. Although killing and selling the bird was banned in France in the late 1990s, the ban was not enforced until 2007 by which time numbers had plunged a further 30%. Last autumn a number of French chefs launched a campaign to overturn the ban.

Once here, it seems that the birds are severely affected by noise and light pollution. Background noise from roads and factories creates a low drone that blocks out the subtleties of birdsong and the sounds made by insect prey. Light pollution upsets their body clocks, causing them distress and impacting their ability to breed.

It is a wonder there are any left for us to enjoy.

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