Saturday, April 30, 2016

Eating thrushes

During the August fiesta in Pinoso I noticed pajaritos, birds, on the menu of one of the temporary chiringuitos. I asked someone what they were, presuming it was just a name in the same vein as toad in the hole. But no, it's literal. My informant went on to tell me that her father still, occasionally, trapped birds. It seems that the birds are eaten fried with tomato or cooked in stews. A usual serving is about a dozen birds.

I thought I had the bones of an article so I did a bit of research. Without giving it too much thought what I pictured was a couple of brothers, of a certain age, setting up nets on a bit of their land and capturing a few birds for the pot. But that isn't the case. It turns out to be big business in parts of Spain and leads to the slaughter of millions of birds, particularly during the autumn migration. Nobody quite knows how many birds die but estimates are between 1.5 and 4 million.

There are several methods to catch birds but there are two main ones. The most obvious is with nets. They're variously called mist nets or Japanese nets which are hung between trees so the birds get caught in them. It's the method scientists sometimes use to capture birds alive for ringing. It's also where many of the caged birds on Spanish balconies come from.

The other, considered to be a Valencian tradition, is called parany. This method involves growing a stand of tall trees inside a fenced area. The trees are covered with small spikes or sticks which are painted with a sticky substance called liga. The chief brand of liga is Tordo which may be a grim joke as tordo is the Spanish word for thrush. The birds are lured to the trees by recorded bird song. When the birds land on the spikes they stick to them and, unable to fly, fall to the floor. On the ground they twist and turn trying to escape. Many die or do themselves considerable harm in the process. When the "hunters" come to collect their trophies they break the necks of the live birds using a practised thumb and finger manoeuvre.

Paranys are illegal. They are not illegal because they catch birds. It's perfectly legal to hunt all sorts of small birds. Thrushes are the main target for these traps and most thrushes are not a protected species but several other birds are. The paranys are illegal because they indiscriminately catch any sort of bird that lands on them, be it protected or not. Again it's an estimate but the bird charities reckon that there are about 2,500 active paranys, mostly in Castellón province.

The Valencian Government legalised this method of "hunting" claiming it as Valencian cultural heritage. Fortunately the Constitutional Court overturned the law citing EU directives. Fines for operating paranys are high but it seems that the authorities often turn a blind eye to the practice.

Back in Pinoso I asked another local whether the practice still goes on here to be told it had more or less died out. And the method? Well they used nets, either mist nets or ones that were thrown over the birds, and they also used embisque, a sort of glue, that was pasted onto the esparto grass where they had laid bait. Not a parany exactly but the same idea.

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