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A native of most European countries— except the British Isles (in which it occurs but rarely on migration) —as well as of western Asia, it migrates in autumn to tropical Africa, and returns about the end of April or beginning of May.
Its distribution throughout its breeding-range seems to be very local, and for this no reason can be assigned. It was said in France to prefer wine-growing districts; but it certainly does not feed upon grapes, and is found equally in countries where vineyards are unknown—reaching in Scandinavia (where it is the provincial bird of Närke) even beyond the Arctic Circle—and then generally frequents corn-fields and their neighbourhoods.
In appearance and habits it much resembles its congener the Yellowhammer[?], but wants the bright colouring of that species, its head for instance being of a greenish-grey, instead of a bright yellow.
The somewhat monotonous song of the cock is also much of the same kind; and, where the bird is a familiar object to the country people, who usually associate its arrival with the return of fair weather, they commonly apply various syllabic interpretations to its notes, just as we do to those of the yellowhammer. The nest is placed on or near the ground, but the eggs seldom show the hair-like markings so characteristic of those of most buntings.
Its natural food consists of beetles and other insects when feeding young, and otherwise seeds.
Ortolans used to be netted in great numbers, kept alive in an artificially lighted, or darkened room, and fed with oats and millet. In a very short time they became enormously fat and were then killed for the table. If, as is supposed, the ortolan be the miliaria of Varro, the practice of artificially fattening birds of this species is very ancient.
In French the word Ortolan is used so as to be almost synonymous with the English "bunting"; thus, the orlolan-de-neige is the Snow Bunting (Plectrophanes nivalis), the ortolan-de-riz is the rice-bird or Bobolink[?] of North America (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), so justly celebrated for its delicious flavour. But the name is also applied to other birds much more distantly related, for the ortolan of some of the Antilles, where French is spoken, is a little ground dove[?] of the genus Chamaepelia.
In Europe the beccafico (fig-eater) shared with the ortolan the highest honours of the dish, and this may be a convenient place to point out that the former is a name of equally elastic signification. The true beccafico is said to be what is known in England as the Garden Warbler[?] (the Motacilla salicaria of Linnaeus, the Sylvia borin of modern writers); but in Italy any soft-billed small bird that could be snared or netted in its autumnal emigration passed under the name in the markets and cook-shops.
The beccafico, however, is not as a rule artificially fattened, and on this account was preferred by some sensitive tastes to the ortolan.
One way ortolans were eaten in French dinners was to cover heads and face with a large napkin for the gourmand's aesthetic desire to absorb the maximum odour with the flavor. This famous use of the towel was launched by a priest, a friend of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin[?].