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An Ortolan is a European songbird; more formally, the bird is known as an Ortolan Bunting. Like many songbirds, the Ortolan is relatively small and not very exciting to look at, but it produces a small range of songs which can be quite pleasing to the ear. The fame of the Ortoloan lies not in its singing ability, but rather in its role as a European delicacy. Due to concern about the conservation status of the Ortolan, hunting the birds is now illegal in many nations, adding even more allure to the bird's mystique.
Like other members of the bunting family, the Ortolan is a seed eater, with a small, stubby bill well adapted for cracking and manipulating seeds. The birds are brownish to green, with reddish bellies, green heads, and brown wings. The name of the bird is French, derived from the Latin hortus, for garden, probably in a reference to the bird's predilection for gardens. Scientifically, the Ortolan is known as Emberiza hortulana.
Like many songbirds, the Ortolan is migratory, preferring the more hospitable climate of Africa during the cold winter months. The birds tend to leave in the mid-fall, returning in March or April to breed. Ortolans nest low to the ground, and the birds usually pair up to incubate the eggs and raise the young. Keeping their nests low to the ground has made the birds more vulnerable to habitat depredation through farming and hunting, as the nests may be destroyed by accident or on purpose while the land is worked.
Allegedly, the birds have a very distinctive, delicate flavor, especially when they are force-fed for several weeks before they are killed. By tradition, the Ortolan is drowned in brandy for the dinner table and served whole. Diners wear napkins over their heads to enhance the aromas of the dish. Since the consumption of the bird is now banned in Europe, these napkins may also protect diners from legal repercussions.
The tradition of serving whole songbirds as delicacies is quite ancient. The Romans, for example, often served an assortment of birds as part of lavish feasts and banquets, and many legacies of these banquets can be seen in modern European cuisine. Presumably, the songbird is an appealing gourmet item because it is so small and therefore rather more decadent than larger birds which can feed multiple people. Unfortunately for the Ortolan, its fame as a dish has led to a dramatic overall decline in population.
I've heard that, traditionally, the birds are eaten bones and all. I find the idea of eating a songbird not very attractive to begin with, but eating the bones - even less so.