Jonathan Franzen's fight to save songbirds

Songbird_Feature.jpg In this Nov. 3, 2012, photo, a bird is entangled in a net used by poachers to trap migrating songbirds in the early morning in the Larnaca district of Cyprus. (AP / Petros Karadjias) 

First aired on The Current (19/7/2013)

You may be familiar with novelist Jonathan Franzen, author of The Corrections and Freedom. But what about naturalist Jonathan Franzen? The author is appalled by the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean and has written about it for The New Yorker and National Geographic and recently co-produced a documentary on the subject.

Franzen became an avid birdwatcher while touring for his books. "Every bird species is like a friend and the more you see it, the better you like it and the more you get to know it," he said to The Current guest host Mike Finnerty in a recent interview. While he was working on Freedom, a few of his friends from Germany told him about songbird poaching. He was appalled and decided to write about it for The New Yorker once he was finished his novel, and things evolved from there. "Somewhat unexpectedly, I've become one of the world's leading experts on the subject."

Songbirds are being hunted in Cyprus, Italy, Egypt and Albania. Many are caught using low-tech, low-maintenance methods that date back "hundreds of years." Sticks are coated with gum from trees, which attracts then traps the birds. When they are harvested, they are plucked from the sticks "like fruit" and "their heads are torn off and they are plucked." The bodies are then sold to restaurants, as songbird is considered a delicacy. The hunt for these birds is regulated, but these regulations are rarely enforced. Hunting takes place in excessive amounts and out of season because the price is right and the consequences are few. "The trade is actually so lucrative in these birds for culinary purposes that people are willing to run the risk of getting caught," Franzen said.

While doing research for his New Yorker article on the subject, Franzen decided to find out for himself if the taste of songbird was worth the price the bird population was paying. It was important for him to find this out first-hand because "it's very important not to adopt a position of moral superiority" when it comes to writing about environmental issues. While in Cyprus, Franzen ordered a plate of Black Cap which he said tasted like "a mouthful of grease and bones and gristle." He was also served Song Thrush, which, he admits, tasted "very good."

Yet Franzen remains a loud voice opposing the hunting, writing and lobbying and, most recently, co-producing Emptying the Skies. His documentary focuses on a "small but intensely active group" in Cyprus that is working in songbird conservation. They release trapped birds and aren't afraid to get into "violent confrontations" with poachers. Franzen hopes Albania will ban songbird hunting soon. He has confidence that the bird populations can come back. "Birds are incredibly resilient. Give them just half an inch and they will breed and their population will resurge." However, Franzen believes the key to saving songbirds isn't a change in laws, it's a change in attitude. "You have to have a whole generation of young people coming up who have had a whole different kind of education and a different kind of experience." Only then will even the worst situation "be improvable."

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