A French delicacy being eaten to death

Illegal and unregulated hunting of a tiny migratory songbird, the ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana), a coveted French delicacy, has been confirmed as unsustainable by an extensive pan-European study.

Lead researcher Frédéric Jiguet from the Centre for Ecology and Conservation Sciences in Paris, and 30 co-authors, found that the migratory species is at risk of extinction.

Wild ortolan buntings are hunted in southwest France in a cultural gastronomic tradition dating back to Roman times. After capture, the birds are fattened up in a cage before being drowned in Armagnac. Then they are plucked, cooked, and eaten whole, bones and all – everything but the beak.

Ritualistically, diners eat the bird feet first in one mouthful with napkins over their heads. Some say the napkin captures the steaming aromas to enhance the gastronomic experience; others contend it hides the act from the eyes of God.

For decades, to fulfil this tradition, hunters have harvested up to 30,000 ortolans every year during the autumn migration. Ortolan eating has the support of many politicians and prominent chefs.

This is despite the species being listed as protected on the European Commission’s Birds Directive since 1979, banned from French restaurants in 1999, and declared endangered in many European countries – including France itself.

The buntings breed from Spain to Mongolia, and Iran to northern Finland, then migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for winter.

European population updates in 2016 found their numbers had dropped by 88% since 1980. Declining or extinct populations, attributed to habitat loss, agricultural practices, climate change and unregulated hunting, were found mostly across northern countries. 

French hunters in the south have continually sought exemption to regulations, arguing that their catches are a small fraction of the bird’s broader population.

To investigate the claim, at the request of France’s minister of ecology, Jiguet and collaborators from Canada and across Europe embarked on a five-year study to ascertain migration patterns.

They used three main methods to track the birds’ movements and supplement current population data: light loggers, stable hydrogen isotopes and population genetics.

Light loggers are small electronic devices that record light intensity. They are attached to the birds to assess daily locations. The isotopes provide an estimation of feather growth, revealing breeding grounds and flight pathways.

To track genetics, 266 migrant birds captured in France were genotyped for comparison with mapped data from breeding populations across Europe.

Combined, these methods enabled the researchers to separate eastern and western ortolan populations.

They found that about a third of the birds migrating through southwest France come from the north, and concluded that French hunting is partly responsible for their dwindling numbers.

Modelling population dynamics through various possible scenarios showed that surviving migration through France would markedly reduce the birds’ extinction risk.

The analysis “confirmed that current northern populations of ortolan buntings are directly threatened with extinction and could not persist without marked increases in survivorship”, the authors write.

“Hence, with this study, French authorities now have rigorous scientific data to make an informed decision to conclusively ban ortolan bunting hunting, actively police poaching, and increase the chances of the ortolan bunting to survive global change.”

The research is published in the journal Science Advances.

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