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The Ortolan Bunting

Updated on September 1, 2009

European bushmeat

The Ortolan Bunting Emberiza hortulana is a small finchlike migratory bird. It winters in Africa before returning to parts of Europe and Western Asia in April or May. It is a small bird and rarely exceeds 25 grammes in weight. It's natural diet consists fo seeds and when it is feeding chicks will eat small small insects too.

Like so many birds today there has been a marked decrease in numbers. This is largely due to a change in farming practices complicated by issues such as the use of pesticide and habitat destruction. The 'Ortolan' as it is popularly known in France faced another threat. It was considered a culinary delicacy and was trapped at random to feed an increasing market.

Emberiza hortulana

Photo by:
Photo by:


The unfortunate Ortolan was artificially fattened before being drowned in Armagnac and then plucked. It was slowly roasted for six to seven minutes and then eaten in it entirety, bones and all. Consuming the little bird was subject to an unusual ritual in that it was eaten with the diners head beneath a large table napkin. This was said to trap the aroma and allow a greater enjoyment of the food. There was much superstition and tradition in the eating of this unfortunate little creature. It was sometimes said that the napkin over the head was to 'hide from God' and that the actual experience of eating was to experience the mystery of the trinity'.

Facing both threats from hunting and degradation and destruction of habitat the Ortolan Bunting was given legal protection. In France today it is illegal to trap or to sell them but not (according to some sources) illegal to eat them. Regardless of the truth of the matter there has been no change in the 'European bushmeat' market since protection was given in 1999 and poaching is common with prices very high. A single tiny bird can cost over £100! This makes it a profitable business to get into. For most restaurants it is very much an 'under the counter' meal but some will still apparently, serve it openly. There is always be someone who knows someone where you can go and savour the Ortolan.

It has been often said that François Mitterrand, the former French president ate an Ortolan as his 'last supper' when he was dying of prostrate cancer. The meal was of course, totally illegal.

At the end of August 2009 bird protectionists in France declared that enough was enough and vowed to destroy traps and release birds wherever they found them. The government had sat on their hands and turned a blind eye for far too long.

This action caused the French junior environment minister, Chantal Jouanno to say " the State has turned a blind eye for 30 the message is clear - there will be zero tolerance."

Lets hope that it keeps to its word.

Clarkson eats an Ortolan


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    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 7 years ago from South East Asia

      Gypsy Willow - On principle I would not eat an Ortalan but I must admit a fondness for snails and horsemeat. I will try most foods twice as long as they are not an endangered species or cruelly treated. Thanks for reading.

    • Gypsy Willow profile image

      Gypsy Willow 7 years ago from Lake Tahoe Nevada USA , Wales UK and Taupo New Zealand

      When I was staying in France twenty years ago I inadvertently bought a canned Ortalan as a gift for my father, not knowing what it was. I certainly incurred his wrath on unwrapping his present. The French eat many odd things, not least snails and horses! I hope the government sticks to its resolution.

    • HubCrafter profile image

      HubCrafter 7 years ago from Arizona

      Hello Peter:

      What a sad and lovely message you have here.

      We love to watch the hummingbirds, hovering around the feeder, zooming away to their tiny half a golfball-sized nest. We've noticed several kinds here (Arizona).

      The desert finch is another of our favorites. Tinier than sparrows; they dip and dive as they fly.

      In the outlying properties that abut the desert we always laugh over the quail. A gaggle of babes meandering behind their Momma as the whole troop crosses the street. Nearly always afoot and just a burst of occasional flight makes these locals a delight to watch.

      Thank you for this introduction to a bird, new to me and lovely,as so many of these feathered ones are.

    • dohn121 profile image

      dohn121 8 years ago from Hudson Valley, New York

      For so many years, many of Laos' beautiful indigenous animals have been declining in numbers at an alarming rate. Many of its people did so in order to survive. Things are getting better, but more laws should be enforced to deter this practice. Thank you, Peter. I hope that the French government follows through with this issue.

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 8 years ago from South East Asia

      I agree but there is one major and important difference. The Fois gras is produced from a domesticated animal and could be increased/decreased according to supply and demand. The Ortolan is a wild animal and decreasing for reasons of habitat destruction. In trouble enough without having to face poaching for profit in a civilised country.

    • awsydney profile image

      awsydney 8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      Fois gras is another contentious issue.

    • Sufidreamer profile image

      Sufidreamer 8 years ago from Sparti, Greece

      Great Hub, Peter.

      We have the odd Ortolan here, and they are wonderful little birds. a few of the older Greeks still trap small birds, but it is something that is becoming less common.

      Never understood it, myself - I hope that the French mean whagt they say. Thanks for bringing this up :)