I do love the birdies. Especially at this time of year, when they are the only thing with any life in it left in my garden. I’ve installed two feeding stations in the garden, plus nest boxes, bug houses, bird baths…you name it. My excuse for not clearing away the dead Jerusalem artichoke stems, tansy bushes and cardoon heads is that the birds might like them. I don’t garden with chemical fertilisers or weedkillers (laziness as much as principles I feel honour-bound to admit), and I will happily spend hours watching the goldfinches and the chaffinches flutter to the feeders, and the robins fight each other, and the blackbirds peck up the contents of my carefully filled pots. Nearly all of my feathered friends are protected by various Wildlife Protection Acts, and quite right too. They are a delight to watch, and are part of the reason for my ongoing cat hatred. Yet many of these small bundles of joy are, apparently, delicious. Obviously I’ve not tried them, referring back to the aforementioned Protection Acts, but for many centuries we ate pretty much anything that flew, walked or crawled (except carrion eaters – that seems to be the universal exception), and that included garden birds. So, looking out of the window and into my books, what would have been on the menu?
1. Pigeon (and dove)
One type of garden bird I have no objection to eating – indeed, I go out of my way to procure and scoff the little bastards, and that is pigeon. Here is why.
They aren’t supposed to be able to do that. They also waddle around under the feeders, trampling the lawn and the plants, and generally acting like the flying dustbins they are. Oh, and whenever the windows have been cleaned, they crash into them, leaving massive white marks on them. I wouldn’t mind if they crashed and died, so I could eat them, but they invariably live. Only once have a retrieved one which hit the window at the wrong angle, and broke its neck. I put it out of its misery and had it as a starter the next day.
But pigeons are obvious. We still eat pigeons. They are a way to get gamey flavours and a hearty punch of dark meat when other game is forbidden by game laws (which came in in the 1830s, but I suspect gamekeepers observed an informal semi-embargo surfing breeding season even before that). They are delicious, and they are manageable – small, yes, but not so small that you can’t get a decent mouthful or two from them. Other birds are a tad more challenging.
2. Very very dodgy but occasionally you meet people who have eaten them: rooks
It is illegal to shoot rooks to eat. There’s some allowance, under licence, for farmers who need to cull for crop management purposes, though usually this somewhat grey area seems to apply more to crows and magpies. However, a quick web trawl suggests that there are a few people out there who use the cull to obtain a few rooks for the pot. I’ve come across older people who clearly recall parents or relatives going out after rooks, especially in the rationing era. Pie seems to have been the usual way to eat rooks, and is certainly a recipe with a long tradition. The birds need taking young, after they fledge, but before they fly the nest completely. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery (1883) says, ‘the rook affords a dry and coarse meat. A pie made of young rooks is tolerable; at least, it is the best form for using these birds for food.’ As with other written instructions for preparing them, it is firm that the cook should remove the bitter-tasting spine, and really, that only the breasts are worth eating. That said, I met a lady recently who said that rook pie was divine. Maybe some of the sniffiness was due to its association with foraging – and hence poverty.
3. Illegal fodder: ‘small byrdes‘
The main bird I always think of in this category is larks, which are ubiquitous in recipe books and in lists of banquet food from the Romans onwards. The Romans are most known for having larks’ tongues, which in their very fiddliness and (arguably) pointlessness were a clear indicator of wealth. I’ve eaten ducks’ tongues, which are about a zillion times bigger and was entirely underwhelmed. Small birds in general were widely consumed until around the 17th century in Britain. If you look at the records of medieval banquets, ‘small byrdes’, appear fairly frequently. Finches, wagtails, warblers, thrushes, starlings, blackbirds – all featured on the menu. Pierre Blot, in A Handbook of Practical Cookery (1867) gives a list of birds eaten in the French repertoire which includes robins, blackbirds, fig-pecker, lapwing, meadow lark, plover, thrush, ‘and other small birds’. It’s a fairly good indication of birds worth eating. The French still eat (illegally) a number of small birds – most notoriously ortolan. Martins, wheatears and sparrows are also mentioned in earlier recipe books.
By the 18th century, published recipe references to eating small birds become less frequent. Some, like starlings, are extremely infrequent anyway. Of course, not having a published recipe doesn’t mean people weren’t still eating them, but it seems that their consumption became less common, especially for the rich, whose cuisine is largely represented in published cookery books. Reasons for this are varied. Improved farming practices, the perceived patriotism of beef, and, I suspect the growing association of eating small garden birds with the poor. By the 18th century, draconian laws were in place to stop the poor eating larger game – hare, deer, pheasant, partridge etc – so they become the prestige choice. The rich did stick to their larks – did they just taste SO GOOD? but other birds disappear from the printed record. One, late reference to garden birds comes from Francatelli’s Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes (1861). He recommended ‘A Pudding made of Small Birds’, and went on to suggest that, ‘industrious and intelligent boys who live in the country, are mostly well up in the cunning art of catching small birds at dd times during the winter months’. This shallot-and-sparrow- laden pie was something rather different to the kind of thing being envisaged up the social scale. Here’s a lark croustade from one of Francatelli’s other books, The Modern Cook.
BASC website on seasons and licences.