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’Ambelopoulia’

Songbirds as delicacies

Expensive fun - many Cypriots are ready to pay 40 Euros for a few bitesExpensive fun - many Cypriots are ready to pay 40 Euros for a few bitesThe boom in bird trapping on Cyprus is not equalled in any other European Union state. Almost everywhere else (Malta is another black sheep) in the EU conservationists and the law enforcement agencies have managed to get poaching more or less under control; but in The Republic of Cyprus the ill doers still have the upper hand and poaching is on the increase. This is due to no small extent to the large untaxed profits to be made from the trade in dead trapped songbirds.

Savouring a plate of 'Ambelopoulia’ - the traditional Cypriot dish of song birds - is not just limited to a small band of gourmets; a great part of the population also have a taste for the tiny titbits, each one weighing only a few grams, and with an alleged tantalising taste (Jonathan Franzen wrote in his New Yorker article Emptying the Skies:

I made myself eat the two almond-size breast muscles, which were the only obvious meat; the rest was greasy cartilage and entrail and tiny bones. I couldn’t tell if the meat’s bitterness was real or the product of emotion, the killing of a blackcap’s enchantment.

Hundreds of thousands of Cypriots eat the dish at least now and again- e.g. at celebrations or on public holidays - which is served as a highlight after vegetable and seafood courses and usually consists of three or four warblers. They are prepared to pay more than 40 euros for a meagre snack! The trappers themselves sell the birds to middlemen or direct to restaurants for about four euros a bird. In Italy they sell for only about 50 cents on the black market.

This Pied Flycatcher continued its migration and escaped the potThis Pied Flycatcher continued its migration and escaped the potOn a ’good‘ day a trapper can catch 100 birds - it is therefore not surprising that the countryside is riddled with trapping devices near which electronic decoy devices play bird calls day and night and lure the migrant birds to their death. Because of the huge profit margin the police refer to “21st Century caviar” and with some justification fear tangling with the professional poaching gangs. These do not shy from using violence when their lucrative trade is threatened. CABS volunteers have also found this out the hard way and have been assaulted on more than one occasion.

The increasing demand by tourists for cooked ‘Cyprus specialities’ has boosted sales in taverna and restaurants. Russian visitors in particular have recently discovered 'Ambelopoulia‘ and ask more frequently for a serving of the illegal dish. CABS members posing as tourists have checked dozes of restaurants and hit pay dirt far too often. Song birds are not officially on the menu as a rule, but a word in the restaurant owner’s ear brings the required result in about 50 % of cases. Our investigations have led to many restaurants being raided by the authorities.

The penalties - if indeed a prosecution is set in chain - are pitifully small. Even when the taverna or restaurant owner has been cautioned or charged repeatedly for illegal sale of song birds he has 'Ambelopoulia’ on offer again in no time at all. It’s all a matter of money and profits.