The Ortolan Bunting is a 6-inch-long, beautiful songbird that breeds in Europe and Asia and winters in parts of Africa. Its unfortunate claim to fame, however, is that hunters in France and other countries have traditionally captured the species to sell it as a delicacy in French cuisine. Many people learned of the practice in 2018, when a character on the Showtime drama “Billions” ate an Ortolan. And the late author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain wrote about his experience eating Ortolan in his 2010 book Medium Raw.
As many as 30,000 of the birds are killed each year in southwest France. In 2017, France finally began to enforce laws meant to protect the birds, and while conservationists and scientists applauded that news, they remain vigilant in efforts to defend buntings. After all, the species has declined faster than any other European passerine – 88 percent since 1980.
Today a new multi-continent study of Ortolan Bunting populations and migration patterns concludes that birds migrating through France are in decline and that hunting the birds is not sustainable.
Hunters claim that the birds that migrate through the country come from large and stable populations elsewhere in Europe. Using a combination of genetic testing, tiny electronic trackers affixed to the birds’ backs, and isotope analysis of feathers that reveals the birds’ breeding grounds, French ornithologist Frédéric Jiguet and colleagues conclude that the French buntings come from small, fragmented and declining populations originating in northern and western Europe. Hunting the birds in France increases the risk of extinction of these populations, and therefore the ban on hunting should not be lifted, the researchers conclude.
The research uncovered two migration flyways for the birds, separating eastern and western European populations.
“Population viability analyses confirmed that current northern populations of Ortolan Buntings are directly threatened with extinction and could not persist without marked increases in survivorship, with prospective decreased extinction risk associated with enhanced habitat quality improving reproductive success,” the researchers write.
They note that populations breeding in Norway are declining rapidly and could go extinct within 23 years.