Frozen Sparrows for Italian Restaurants
"Polenta uccelli" - maize porridge with songbirds - is a popular speciality in northern Italy. As hunting for thrushes and skylarks is allowed, the dish can still be prepared today. But only within your own four walls, because the sale of shot birds is forbidden. The commercial sale of songbirds in restaurants and butchers has been illegal since 1992.
The background to this is a corresponding provision in the EU Birds Directive, which clearly prohibits the marketing of legally shot or captured songbirds of European bird species.
The government in Rome made a loophole in the law that has since been closed so that restaurants in northern Italy had a way of putting songbirds on their plates. The trick: while the EU Birds Directive explicitly states "birds of European species", Italian nature conservation law uses the term "European birds". This has opened a back door for poultry traders to import birds from outside Europe, even if they are common European species.
The Committee Against Bird Slaughter (CABS) subsequently started extensive research. Veterinarians found that the birds had not been shot. They must have been caught with nets or traps, which is also forbidden in Tunisia. A legal consultation proved that the birds may not be sold even if they came from Tunisia - aside from the import prohibition but also because of bird flu. And the Institute for Bird Research in Wilhelmshaven confirmed that the animals were willow sparrows and thus a protected European species - which, however, as described above, were classified as non-European birds in the Italian version of the EU Birds Directive, since they came from North Africa.
The EU could not intervene immediately because there was no proof that the sparrow traders really went unpunished. In March 2012, following several charges brought forward by CABS, a merchant in Verona, where police had found 12,960 frozen willow sparrows, was acquitted as expected. The court recognised the legal loophole and confirmed that the sparrows could be sold under Italian law despite an EU ban. With the ruling, we were able to file an environmental complaint against Italy in Brussels in autumn 2012. On 23.07.2014 the Italian parliament changed the law and banned the import of sparrows from Tunisia - since August 2014 restaurants and butchers have been cut off from the last remaining legal supply route!