Somehow it’s hard to think of chickens and turkeys as birds. Sure, they have feathers, but we never see a flock of them high overhead, migrating south for the winter, their clucking stirring our own restlessness. Nor do we startle them when we take a walk in the woods. We don’t listen for their sweet morning calls and try to identify exactly what chicken it is we’re hearing. Wait! Is that a Rhode Island Red or an Ameraucana? Hand me my binoculars!
No. Chickens and turkeys are ambulatory food for the most part.
Songbirds, however, are not. One of the pleasures of being here in Arizona is watching the birds that come to our feeder every day.
Anna's hummingbird, noisy and aggressive
We don’t get anything terribly exotic (and we have yet to see a chicken) – many purple finches, the ubiquitous Anna’s hummingbird, Abert’s towhee , Gila peckers, Cactus wrens, and, on the ground below, Inca doves and the amusing Gambel’s quail, which makes a bweep-bweeping sound, reminiscent of burbling water, while it wanders around beneath the feeder.
Male finch enjoying a seed while female thinks about it
Gambel's quail, males conveniently carry bulls eye on their breasts
It’s a pleasure we don’t enjoy in Italy. Not because there are no songbirds – there are. We get huge amusement and satisfaction from the merli (a sort of black robin with the unfortunate Latin name Turdus merula, called ‘merlo’ in the singular) which are curious and companionable, and which have the beautiful song typical to thrushes. We seldom work outside in spring or summer without an appreciative audience of merli. But bird-feeding as a hobby does not seem to exist in Italy, at least not in our part of the country. I have never seen a bird-feeder at anyone’s house, and I have never seen bird feed for sale.
Instead in Italy there is a sizable, though fortunately shrinking, trade in trapping and killing wild birds. The CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) web site has a great deal of information about the illegal trapping of birds which occurs, in Italy, mostly in the north (Lombardia), the southern Italian coast, Sardinia and Sicily. There are a couple of good reasons why this illicit activity continues. One is that it is a matter of long tradition to trap songbirds, and Italy is nothing if not wed to her traditions. In earlier times songbirds were an important source of protein for hungry Italians. Another reason is that some restaurants persist in serving songbirds, though you will never see them on the menu.
Little birds with polenta, photo courtesy of CABS
Happily, CABS reports that hunting songbirds is truly on the wane in northern Italy, a trend we can only hope (or I can only hope, anyway) will continue.
Gila woodpecker atop a nearby cactus
Hunting for sport is as popular in the U.S. as it is in Italy. In 2006, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2.3 million people hunted migratory birds such as doves or waterfowl. Such hunting is highly regulated; hunters must have appropriate licenses and stamps, and can hunt only certain birds in certain places at certain times. Sport hunters in both countries are generally dedicated and law-abiding conservationists, interested in protecting the populations of the species they like to hunt. In a perfectly counter-intuitive bit of logic, sometimes bird populations must be ‘culled’ in order to protect the well-being of the species. It makes no sense to me, but if the people at Audubon say it’s true, it must be true. Mustn’t it?
No doubt there is illegal hunting in the U.S., but it is difficult to get away with it. Some years ago when we lived in Connecticut a man of our acquaintance became very angry at the number of messy geese on his pond and lawn. He got out his rifle, stood on the back porch and shot one, no doubt hoping to scare away the others. His neighbors heard the shot and came running to find out what was wrong, so he was caught red-handed. He did not go to prison, but he did have a reprimand and a sizable fine. Even worse, he became known locally as ‘Goose Killer’ – and it was not the sort of affectionate and admiring nickname that, say, ‘Speedy’ is.
The illegal taking of birds in Italy is of a different order entirely. According to CABS, ‘millions’ of birds are taken every year, hundreds of thousands of them in Northern Italy. They are sometimes taken with guns, as in the wholesale slaughter of migrating birds videoed here (supposedly ‘legal,’ but against the very EU regulations Italy signed on to uphold), and frequently taken in any of several various types of traps, all of which are illegal (bow, snap, snare, cage and nets).
It’s hard to understand what the appeal or pleasure is in trapping or shooting songbirds. It’s not as if they’re particularly challenging prey, or especially meaty. The declining number of traps in Italy attest to the gradual change of attitude towards this cruel practice; but it remains a big problem.
Male finches 'discuss' seating while a female thinks about it all
According to Wikipedia 55 million Americans are bird-watching hobbyists. They spend $3 billion a year on seed and $800,000 million on bird feeders and other accessories. Maybe there’s an opportunity here to help the struggling Italian economy. Don’t kill the birds, feed them. Photograph them. Enjoy them. Encourage touristic bird-watching trips. And when the irresistible blood lust of the hunter comes over you, go down to Signore Marrone’s farm and bag a few chickens.