Putting Songbirds Back on the Menu?

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Fatty and imbued with a subtle hazelnut flavor, the ortolan bunting is a hundred-year-old delicacy that has been off French menus for 15 years thanks to a European-wide ban of hunting the bird. But that doesn't stop people from catching and eating an estimated 30,000 ortolans every year, selling the off-menu delicacy for some $190 a bird. Now, four renowned chefs — Michel Guérard, Alain Ducasse, Jean Coussau, and Alain Dutournier — from the South of France are calling for the French government to lift the ban, allowing diners to enjoy the dish, at least for two days a year. Their argument: It's an important part of French culinary culture. But could putting the ortolan on the menu imperil the species?

After the birds fly into traps, usually baited with oat stalks or decoy males, the sellers keep them in the dark for three weeks. The birds triple in volume while eating millet and grapes before they're drowned in alcohol, plucked, and roasted. At that point they are eaten whole in a single bite with a white napkin overhead to capture the aroma (and ostensibly hide the bird from the authorities). 

To be clear, these birds are not rare or endangered. A 2004 Bird Life International survey estimates that as many as 46 million ortolan buntings breed in Europe — a healthy population. But the numbers are declining because of pressures including habitat loss and illegal hunting. In France, the Birds Protection League estimates that between 2001 and 2011 the ortolan's population fell by 40 percent. Experts like Justin Brashares, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley who studies wildlife as delicacy, and bird expert Kenn Kaufman agree that a controlled harvest of the birds will likely not immediately imperil the species, but would begin to put strain on the population.


Even a regulated allowance would greatly increase demand for the birds, says Brashares, because diners who love eating ortolan, but respected the official ban, would feel that they could eat the bird legally. If catching them is legal, hunters, middlemen, and restaurant buyers create trade networks that can easily go underground after hunting season. "The rarer the bird would get, the more some people would like to try it at least once (or try it one last time)," says Franck Courchamp, an evolutionary biologist who researches rare species and conservation. "Under these circumstances, it is not unlikely that the entire species could finish under a white napkin."

Whether or not the four chefs get ortolan back on the menu, more should be done to protect the bird from illegal hunting, say conservationists like Allain Bougrain Dubourg, the president of France's Bird Protection League. He has already criticized French officials for turning the other way when it comes to enforcing the ortolan hunting ban. Without strict regulation, hunters harvest all they can. And even with a short-term legal hunting season, the regional nature of the delicacy means that local police, who are often close to the hunters and diners, don't enforce the regulations.

The best way to protect a species that might be overexploited for food, whether it's rare or not, is to change cultural tastes, says Brashares. And this might be the best argument yet to keep it off the menu: "Make it impossible for younger generations to develop an affinity for imperiled foods," he says. In other words, keep the ortolan in the air, not on the dinner plate.