To prepare the French delicacy ortolan bunting, one must capture the tiny songbird as it attempts to migrate south for the winter, force feed it much like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” fattens up her hapless victims, and, finally, drown it in a vat of Armagnac brandy.
Once the ortolan is dead (and, thanks to the brandy, marinated), it is cooked, plucked and served. The diner traditionally veils their face with a napkin before consuming the bird—bones, feet, head and everything but the beak—in a single bite. In the words of the Telegraph’s Harry Wallop, “The napkin is partly to keep in all the aromas of the dish, partly to disguise you having to spit out some of the bigger bones. But, mostly, because diners wish to hide the shame of eating such a beautiful creature from the eyes of God.”
Today, ortolan poaching is illegal in France, but a thriving black market ensures the highly controversial dish continues to be served. Now, a sweeping new survey published in Science Advances reveals the toll that French ortolan hunting has had on the species, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature lists as endangered in France. (In the IUCN’s global assessment, the ortolan bunting receives a less critical threat status.)
Frederic Jiguet, a conservation researcher for France’s national museum of natural history and the new study’s lead author, doesn’t mince words in an interview with Ivan Couronne of Agence France-Presse, saying, “If hunting of the ortolan continues, it will lead to the ortolan's disappearance.”
According to the researchers’ model, if half of the 30,000 ortolans hunted in France each year were spared, the species’ risk of extinction would stand at around 66 percent within a century. But even if hunting is completely eradicated, giving the species “an average of twice the chance of survival,” as Jiguet told AFP, it may not be enough to save the bird from extinction.
According to Cosmos’ Natalie Parletta, Jiguet and his colleagues embarked on their research in an attempt to investigate southern French hunters’ claims that their catches represent only a small portion of the ortolan’s overall population. The team relied on light loggers, or small electronic devices that measure light intensity, to identify the birds’ locations, stable hydrogen isotopes to gauge feather growth, and genotyping of 266 migrant birds to compare breeding populations from different areas in Europe and Asia.
Based on this data, the researchers concluded that one-third of the 300,000 ortolans flying through southwestern France on an annual basis come from northern regions including the Baltic states, Finland and Scandinavia. These northern populations, the study’s authors write, are “directly threatened with extinction and [can]not persist without marked increases in survivorship.”
While the European Union banned ortolan hunting in 1979, France did not follow suit for another 20 years. Even then, according to The New York Times, restrictions remained largely unenforced until 2007. Between 1980 and 2016 alone, Europe’s ortolan population dropped by 88 percent, largely thanks to habitat loss, agricultural practices and climate change, but also in part due to illegal French hunting.
As Parletta notes, the key to these northern ortolans’ long-term survival is relatively simple. As it stands, an estimated 10 percent of the 300,000 ortolans that pass through southwestern France on their annual sojourn south to Africa fall victim to black market hunters. To lower the risk of extinction, tougher hunting regulations are needed to ensure that the ortolan can make it out of France without ending up on the secret menu of a gourmet restaurant.