May 22, 2013

Mediterranean Diet: The Dark Side

You have the olive oil, of course, and the seafood and the vegetables.

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.

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. 
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.

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.


Rupert of Hentzau said...

When Egypt fed the Roman Empire (and itself), the Aswan High Dam had not been built. Since its completion, the Nile can no longer flood Lower Egypt, which accordingly no longer grows much grain.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...


The Italian tradition of eating song birds started as a response to game laws that basically made anything you'd actually want to hunt, 'toffs only' so the village guys would eat song birds. Italian game laws are some of the most restrictive in Europe its a mountain of paperwork to do anything there. I have a friend who is 100% fluent, as a twelve year old he wanted to fish in the river near the villa he was staying in, it would have meant a morning in the town hall and a wait of at least six weeks to get all the licences in order. America must have seemed a promised land to the newly arrived Italian hunter.

Here in old blighty we don't even eat the resident course fish that are staples all over europe and songbirds are taboo to everyone I've ever asked. We did have a tradition of shooting Rooks with special low velocity Rook Rifles, but as we only eat the immature 'branchers' the season is very short, probably a couple of weeks at the most

I've eaten a few unusual birds, though not Ortolan which eaten feathers an' all sounds pretty horrid to me.

I did a piece for Discovery recently where we ate a road-kill feast which turned into a fiesta of weird eating, with a woman who has literally eaten everything serving up

Owl - like a not so tasty Pigeon
Rook - a bit like owl really
Partridge - like a much better pheasant
Woodcock - easily the best game bird I've tried, actually lives up to the hype.


Chas S. Clifton said...

@John, true, and population growth might be a factor too. :(

Chas S. Clifton said...

@SBW "Here in Blighty" there is an old rhyme about "four and twenty blackbirds baked into a pie," however.

Steve Bodio said...

Yeah, Hornaday, whose bigotry was surpassed only by Fat Fred Remington's (who once used every ethnic slur in the English language in one sentence and wished for a rifle to kill them all, though that is not the only reason to prefer Charley Russell).

Imagine a child being raised by a conservationist and hunter like my father in Boston's nineteen fifties. One day you take home an old book from the Richardson- designed public library, only to read that your grandfather should be deported because he belongs to a genetically and morally inferior "subhuman" race that should ideally be sterilized and eliminated. As should Jews and "negroes".

The lovely man actually espoused the "liberal" policies of the day, apparently because he stopped short of the gas chamber. Over 60,aware of complexity, I STILL hate the fatuous old SOB. And please, no "of his time" rhetoric either. Read Teddy R for a bracing dissent in his essay on "who is American?"