And the golden orioles, the nightingales, and the corncrakes. The larks and the finches, yum yum.
Call it a quirk of geography. Birds that migrate from Europe to Africa must cross the Mediterranean Sea, north to south or south to north. They are tired after that flight, easy to trap and kill, be it in Egypt, the Greek islands, Crete, Sicily, or the south of France.
In Egypt, for example,
A few scattered nets along the coast have metastasized into a nearly impenetrable wall of traps, stretching almost without break from the Gaza strip in the east to the Libyan border in the west. Conservative estimates set the annual death toll of migratory birds in this area at 10 million, but others say it is probably an order of magnitude more.This Mediterranean taste for songbird pasta sauce came to America and contributed to the shaping of American hunting regulations. Just as Americans were trying to move away from the "shoot everything" approach to conservation-guided hunting, along came the Italians (mainly) who got jobs, bought shotguns, took a train ride out into the country, and started shooting chickadees.
In some areas, especially near Libya, the birds are caught for subsistence, by people who currently have no other way to feed themselves, but the vast majority, perhaps 80 percent of the birds trapped, are sold in markets as a pricey delicacy or hocked to high-end restaurants in Cairo for up to five euros for each slight songbird.
Louis Warren, writing in The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America, devotes a chapter to this cultural conflict:
Because Italian immigrants hunted birds, they were considered a principal threat to bird life and therefore an incipient cause of this potential apocalypse. In the minds of many, immigrants represented as much a threat to American nature, especially American birds, as they did to the social order of American cities. William T. Hornaday, the president of the New York Zoological Society and one of the most famous conservationists of the era, captured conservationists' fears of Italians in his widely read tract, Our Vanishing Wildlife: "Let every state and province in America look out sharply for the bird-killing foreigner; for sooner or later, he will surely attack your wild life. The Italians are spreading, spreading, spreading. If you are without them to-day, to-morrow they will be around you."In 1903, the influential conservation magazine Forest and Stream published an article, "The Italian and the Birds," noting,
Once I examined the contents of a bag that one of a party of three Italian hunters [in Massachusetts] carried and found nearly fifty birds, including two or three quails, which at that season were unlawfully taken, and among the song birds that constituted the greater portion of what the bag contained were several chickadees, a bird that with its feathers off is not much larger than an English walnut. I have learned that the Italians are in the habit of killing and eating chickadees and all other song birds, and for this purpose will snatch the young from their nests before they can fly.Today, hunting regulations in America are better respected, and what transgressions take place usually take different forms. The French may even stop eating songbirds too.
Unfortunately, contemporary Egypt is a pretty dysfunctional nation that cannot even feed itself. (To think that Egypt fed parts of the Roman Empire at one time!) So bird conservation is pretty far down the to-do list, after massacring Coptic Christians and what-not.