We’ve all heard about the dangers of over-fishing in our oceans and we’ve witnessed the horrors that poaching has wrought upon land mammal populations. Now, a delicacy by the name of ambelopoulia could be driving rare migratory songbirds in the Mediterranean region to the brink of extinction.
The dish uses bite size pickled or grilled songbirds as the main ingredient. It has been illegal to trap, sell or purchase birds and to serve ambelopoulia for over 30 years, but the law protecting the birds is rarely enforced. Most common in Cypress, 14% of the residents there surveyed by BirdLife in 2008 claimed that ambelopoulia was their favorite poultry. Only 2% ate it regularly, but this can be most likely be attributed to the fact that markets and restaurants charge an exorbitant sum to serve the delicacy, up to €50 for a plate of four birds.
The birds are trapped in one of two ways. The most popular method, called mist nets, involves stringing fishing nets made of fine nylon mesh, which are difficult for the birds to see, between trees. Hunters then use electronic bird calls to lure the birds into the trees. When the birds strike the fishing nets, their wings and legs become entangled and they become trapped.
The second method involves using birdlime, a sticky substance naturally occurring in local trees and berries to create limesticks. Essentially, the glue sticks poachers create are then placed on trees. When a bird perches upon the sticks they become stuck.
Neither of these methods are especially humane. Both of them involve leaving the birds trapped and suffering until a hunter returns to kill them, typically by stabbing them in the throat with a toothpick. Often, in the meantime, birds will chew off their own wings and legs in an attempt to free themselves.
The traps also do not discriminate between species and Cypriot superstition dictates that all the birds caught must be killed, whether or not they were part of the intended catch or the hunter will suffer bad luck. Although Blackcaps and European Robins are generally the intended targets of poachers, often rare protected migratory birds are inadvertently captured and then served. According to BirdLife, close to half of the 380 bird species recorded in Cyprus have been caught at one time or another by mist nets or limesticks and they estimate that 75% or more of all migrants birds landing in the worst affected areas of Cypress are caught and killed by poachers.
Trappers defend their behavior by claiming that ambelopoulia is a part of traditional Cypriot culture, as are the bird hunts. Still, a Royal Society for the Protection of Birds study has shown that nine out of 10 Cypriots disapprove of trapping. With public perception turning against them, hopefully the poachers in Cypress will soon be stopped and the local government will crack down on those who serve ambelopoulia.