Killing Fields for Songbirds

A traditional Mediterranean delicacy kills hundreds of thousands of songbirds each autumn. A new documentary goes on the hunt for the bird trappers.

September 28, 2014

A small brown warbler dangles upside down in a grove of acacia trees, its feet and wings stuck to a sticky, lime-soaked branch. The bird had been flying from Europe to northern Africa when it decided to make a pit stop on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Little did it know that thousands of traps and nets wait there for migrating songbirds.

According to the new documentary Emptying the Skies, directed by Douglas Kass, hunters in rural areas of the Mediterranean can catch 10,000 songbirds in a single night—though larger species such as owls, hawks, and cuckoos also become ensnared. It’s all part of a gruesome black-market trade that’s sending many songbirds species—the ortolan, sandwich tern, lesser grey shrike, to name a few—into roasting pans and toward extinction.

But it’s this warbler’s lucky day. The film follows a small group of rescuers who free her from her deadly perch and go on to confront her poachers. They are members of the Committee Against Bird Slaughter, who take to the hills, fields, and wooded lots of Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, and other coastal countries, sabotaging traps and setting songbirds free. The job has its risks. CABS members have suffered broken bones and bashed-in cars, and one was even shot in the face by poachers.

The European Union has outlawed the trapping of songbirds, but neither it nor CABS has been able to stop the thriving industry—one worth an estimated €15 million a year in Cyprus alone.

The hunters sell the birds to restaurants and eager households seeking to prepare traditional dishes such as ambelopoulia. In France, chefs behead and de-feather ortolan buntings before soaking the birds in bowls of Armagnac and serving them whole, a half-dozen or so on a plate. Diners wear cloth napkins over their heads to waft in the aromas as they pop the baked or fried animals into their mouths, bones and feet and all.

Author Jonathan Franzen is the executive producer of Emptying the Skies. His 2010 piece for The New Yorker by the same title helped bring Cyprus’s poaching problem into the spotlight. If you’ve already missed the film’s handful of select screenings, you’ll be able to catch it later this year in theaters and on the Internet. Bring tissues. The systematic silencing of songbirds can hit you hard.

After ordering a plate of blackcap warblers he couldn’t bring himself to finish, Franzen wrote: “Outside, by the edge of the restaurant parking lot, near some bushes in which I’d earlier heard ambelopoulia singing, I knelt down and scraped a hole in the dirt with my fingers. The world was feeling especially empty of meaning, and the best I could do to fight this feeling was to unwrap the two dead birds from the napkin, put them in the hole, and tamp some dirt down on them.”

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