Monday, 23 February 2009

Ampelopoullia

While in the fields on Sunday I actually caught a glimpse of a blackcap (αμπελοπούλλι). I could hear it clicking nearby but they tend to be so elusive that I didn't really expect to see it, and I just trusted my uncle's experience of its call. I saw a bird-shaped shadow among some reeds, but when you're looking for birds you see bird-shaped shadows everywhere that turn out to be leaves or clumps of vegetation, so I wasn't really expecting it to be a bird, but I focused my bins on it anyway. And it was the blackcap! I could hardly believe my luck!

Blackcaps are special in Cyprus. They cost €4 each in tavernas, pickled or boiled. A tasty delicacy. An illegal, unsustainable and horribly damaging delicacy.

As migrating birds pass through Cyprus in the Autumn on their way to Africa from Europe, they are "funnelled" through valleys in specific regions of the island because of the topography of the landscape. This makes these high density areas ideal for trapping the migrants. Traditionally, lime sticks (βερκά) are set up. These are metre-long twigs covered in a sticky resin. Birds that perch on lime sticks become more and more stuck as they struggle to free themselves, and are killed by the trapper when he arrives to collect his catch. Lets not get into the welfare aspect of this method of killing, which is clearly anything but humane.

Trapping birds with lime sticks used to be a way of supplementing a poor diet in the past. Now, with the high standard of living that we Cypriots take pride in, lime sticks are unnecessary. However, their use is lucrative, and mist nets are also being used now. The demand in restaurants is high, and trappers are now active year-round.

The major problem with trapping birds in this way is that it is completely indiscriminate. This means that many different species of birds are caught, not just blackcaps, and in large numbers as well. BirdLife Cyprus has so far listed 58 species that are of European conservation concern (SPEC) which have been found to be caught on lime sticks, including birds of prey caught in their attempts to get some easy pickings. European legislation, and by extension Cypriot legislation, bans lime sticks and mist nets and all activity related to these.

Bird trapping has been illegal in Cyprus for the last 30 years. Despite this, it is estimated that more than 1 million birds are trapped every year. In the 1990s, the estimate was 10 million. Even if there has been such a significant decline in the last decade due to better enforcement of the ban, one million birds is scary to say the least. And, according to BirdLife Cyprus (who monitor trapping under cover), it's on the rise.

1 comment:

David said...

Best post yet.
However i don't get how ampelopoullia are high in demand in tavernas and cost 4 euros a piece if capturing and selling them is illegal!...

When i was a kid i was close friends with the kids that were around my age that lived next door to my grandparents in Limassol. They were young and dumb and got influenced a lot by their hick relatives. I remember them making a short lime stick from scratch. As i recall a paste was made from some small, orange, berry-like fruit; and they had set it up in the fig tree in the park across the street. One day as i was walking by the fig tree i noticed they had caught something (i think it might have been a canary). It was alive and struggling and had probably broken one of its own wings trying to free itself from the sap. As i looked at it i realised that the poor thing was close to giving up, and it just hung there upside-down, one wing, broken and stuck to the lime stick and it's head hanging, darting from side to side.
The result of child's play. I doubt they knew what to do with the canary after they found it. I can imagine they had been excited that their boyish game was a success, but i can also imagine the bird ending up in the garbage along with the stick.

Another memory closely linked to ambelopoullia has again to do with my grandparents neighbors. I recall visiting them one evening before dinner and seeing a huge jar of pickled ambelopoullia on the table. There must have been three dozen featherless, little birds setting in a 2 litre jar of vinegar. They looked like anything but a delicacy!

Like you said Chris, the consumption of ambelopoullia and the method of catching them with lime sticks is a result of a bygone era when Cyprus was in poverty and food was scarce. However this so called delicacy has somehow managed to engrave itself into the social unconscious of many Cypriots. Almost as if it's part of the Cypriot identity and culture. The technique of preparing the lime sticks and pickling the birds is passed down from generation to generation, practically like a tradition. And even though this is nothing like rhinoceros horns, the practice will probably continue for a few more generations, until there are no more ambelopoullia left, or the cypriots realise the KFC is all the poultry they ever needed to consume.

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