ROM – It appeared to be just another breach of coronavirus social distance restrictions when Italian police broke up a lunch of around 20 people near the northern city of Brescia last week.
But then they came across an illegal massacre on the menu.
Authorities caught the group in a local government building where around 65 protected migratory birds were cooked, mostly finches, including two finches, a shy species and a blackberry, known for its orange chest and white rump.
The forestry department of the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police, was alerted by a phone call to the illegal lunchtime meeting and found the guests near a buffet with starters and drinks but no main courses. The guests assured the police that everything was within the rules, with masks on and respected distance. Upon closer inspection, the Carabinieri officers found a large pan with dozens of fried songbirds hidden under the table.
They recognized the protected species, officers said, by the shape of their bills. Some are threatened worldwide.
“Shameful,” said Italy’s Anti-Hunting League.
“Angry,” said the Animal Welfare League.
“A delicacy,” said Floriano Massardi, a regional official who, like many in the region, likes to eat songbirds on a stick.
The area where the forbidden festival took place, Gardone Val Trompia, is in the middle of an important migration route for thrushes, greenfinches and blackbirds.
For centuries, hunters in the region have set traps for them in the bushes and on branches or shoot them from the sky. Whether caught on the ground or in the air, they often found their end next to the polenta or were skewered on the “Brescian skewer”.
However, the local tradition has largely become illegal as lawmakers want to protect a growing number of species and bird families. Even so, the valleys north of Brescia have remained the most dangerous killing zone in Italy for many songbirds. Hundreds of thousands are illegally hunted every year.
Italy itself is a bird danger zone. Five million protected birds are shot there every year. According to BirdLife International, that is about a fifth of all birds illegally killed each year on the Mediterranean coast, in Northern Europe and in the Caucasus.
Animal rights groups hoped the raid would put a new focus on illegal activity in what is the most egregious songbird killer in Europe.
The penalty for those who attended lunch depends on what fees are charged. However, the fine can be more than 2,000 euros for the guest who brought the birds.
Last week, a court in Brescia held the first hearing of a local who kept 788 dead songbirds in his freezer. This included robins, which are illegally sold to restaurants for 3 to 5 euros. They are especially valued for their thin bill, which is considered edible for some.
In Italy, animals can only be hunted with a license and there are penalties for hunting and selling protected species. For years the issue has been at the center of a political conflict between animal rights activists, who are often backed by progressive politicians – who have called for stricter restrictions – and hunting associations and conservative politicians who want to make hunting easier.
Animal rights activists point out that songbirds are in danger across Europe and that 40 once common migratory bird species are disappearing.
“There is a general biodiversity crisis,” said Annamaria Procacci, board member of ENPA, Italy’s animal welfare league, and former Green Senator.
“And then there are people who enjoy it.”
Mr Massardi, the official who labeled the protected blackberries a delicacy, is a hunter who has proposed removing the protection for some songbirds, including those on Friday’s menu. He said he wanted to save tradition.
He acted “in the name of the Brescian spit,” he said, a typical dish made from impaled slices of pork, chicken, rabbits and songbirds. The chaffinch and the blackberry, he said, give the skewer an unmistakable bitter taste that he has not enjoyed in 10 years.
Mr Massardi did not condone lunch on Friday, saying it was a criminal offense for any restaurant owner suffering from the government-imposed closings. But he didn’t see why the government should ban what’s on the table.
“I don’t understand why chicken, yes, and these birds, no,” he said. “Chickens are birds too.”