Saturday 1 March 2014

Ortolan Bunting - a typically French approach to protection?

Due to the "peculiar nature" of the situation with the Ortolan Bunting in France I've chosen to blog this rather than use a page on the web site.

The situation in France.

In Les Landes the Ortolan bunting is a species that has historically been captured to be eaten as a “Regional delicacy”, a food reserved mainly for the rich that was served in the best restaurants of Paris and the other large French cities and has graced the tables of the wealthy and  politicians for hundreds of years. It was for this reason that France derogated this species from the European Bird Directive. This led to something of a paradox because although the Ortolan bunting wasn't listed as protected in France neither was it included on the list of species permitted to be hunted. This enabled them to be captured alive, transported, kept in captivity, bought and sold and killed – BUT NOT HUNTED. In a few regions the practice of capturing them continued to be considered as “traditionale”, being apparently an important part of French culture. After being banned in the Lot-et-Garonne and the Gers it only left Les Landes where this continued until finally under mounting pressure they were made a protected species in France on 15th March 1999. Unfortunately the illegal capture and trade continues and little is done to prevent it. With an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 people involved in their capture in Les Landes and each bird with an end price “served up” on the table of €100 to €150 or even more it isn’t difficult to see the financial attractions or the probable reasons why there is what seems to be a “blind eye” from the authorities. 

The Capture.

The process commences when the birds are captured, either in mist nets or more usually these days in small cages on posts and this takes place when the birds are on their autumn migration, mainly from the North and Centre of Europe where the south west of France forms their major route. The cages are spaced out in blocks on open land that is often concealed in the middle of maize fields. They have a small dish of fine seed placed in them to attract the birds, then as the Ortolan enters, the cage snaps shut. It is estimated that some 30,000 to 50,000 of these so called “protected birds” are caught in these traps, (called matoles), each year in Les Landes, which is the equivalent of the combined total of all the nesting Ortolan in the Benelux countries, Germany, Denmark, Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In recent years the LPO and CABS have been present in some of the areas where the birds are trapped and have attempted to destroy as many illegal traps as possible after releasing any birds. They have also denounced this situation of tolerance established between the administration and the poachers without concrete results and in spite of the promises made by various Ministers for Ecology to put an end to this situation very few prosecutions actually take place.

The Fattening.

The captured the birds are fattened for a few weeks by being fed millet in suspended cages kept in dark barns. Kept in these artificial conditions and with an ample supply of food and water they gorge themselves rapidly putting on excess weight.

The Eating.

Now we come to what we could call the “sacred” bit or perhaps "satanical" would be more appropriate as the cooking and eating of Ortolan buntings takes on something of a ritualistic aspect. There are several ways in which the bird can be prepared and back in the 19th century Alcide Bontou the famous chef had several recipes for them in his work titled “Traité de Cuisine Bourgeoise Bordelaise”. However, in all cases the birds are plucked and cooked whole, often having been first drowned in Armagnac. The person eating the bunting usually holds it delicately by the beak and legs, then with a napkin  draped over their head and in silence with eyes closed the bird is taken whole into the mouth and slowly chewed, perhaps after having first sucked the juices.

Ortolan bunting was famously reported to be Francois Mitterrand's last meal and there is also a section in the documentary "A table avec les politiques", (France 3, 29th September 2007), showing Alain Juppe and Jack Lang enjoying a private meal of Ortolan where you can see this ritual taking place. 

About Ortolan Bunting.


Slightly larger than a sparrow the male Ortolan bunting is easily recognised by its colouring. A greyish olive green stretches of the head and neck to the top of the chest with a yellow throat and “moustache”. The lower half of the body is a rich cinnamon. Upper parts are brown and streaked. A good view will reveal a yellow eye ring, buff pink beak and feet. Females are paler, less green with small dark streaks on the breast.

Habitat, Behaviour and Diet.

Here in Poitou-Charentes they arrive from tropical Africa in mid April and depart towards the end of September and the Vienne Departement hosts the largest breeding population in Central / West of France, although there are significant, if small, populations in the other three Departments. Habitat, as is often the case, is paramount for Ortolan. They require an open aspect with sparse ground cover and a soil that is “hot and dry”. Typically this is the type of small family size vineyards that have the odd small fruit trees included and aren’t kept over “weed” free. Other open sparsely covered ground such as wasteland and set aside, which is rapidly becoming a thing of the past, will also be suitable. Nests are constructed on or very close to the ground in a clump of plants from mid May and the female produces 4/5 eggs, usually in June; usually there is only one brood. Breeding males will be seen singing in a small tree, on a stone wall or vine in close proximity to the nest with a call that resembles that of a Yellowhammer. Food, which is taken on the ground, is mainly insects and caterpillars supplemented with small seeds as the season progresses. 


With the exception of Poland, Bulgaria and the Baltic States they are in decline throughout their European breeding range, although with a large global population they aren’t currently considered to be globally at risk they are considered to be threatened in France. Other than the obvious annual slaughter the situation is linked to changes in agricultural practices, particularly the intensive use of pesticides and the abandonment of traditional practices. 

In the Vienne we have the only remaining viable ortolan population in the region with all the adjoining Departements either in steep decline or it having disappeared completely as a nesting bird. For this reason in 2013 the LPO Vienne commenced a program "connaitre et protéger" for the Otrolan in the parts of the Vienne where it best represented, principally Le Pays du Haut-Poitou et Clain. Working on two fronts with farmers to provide the correct good habitat and with schools to educate the young - always important.