Alessandro, the son of Signor Antonio and also my neighbor, is a hunter. This season he has already bagged 8 wild rabbits (“lepre”) and a pheasant, but his usual prey is small birds. Caged “bait birds” are used to lure wild migrating birds into shooting range, and I see the small bird cages frequently out for some daylight and fresh air. Most of the time, though, the cages are kept in a light-controlled room in Antonio’s fondo. He comes every day (or Alessandro does) to change the water and food, and gives each bird a small pinch of living mealy worms as a supplement. The light in their room is on timers adjusted every day, used to convince the captive birds that it’s another season entirely—when they should be calling out for mates. The hunters go into the fields before dawn to hang the caged birds in grass cover, and then wait nearby with their shotguns while the birdsong attracts the wild birds that they hunt.
It’s always a thought in my head to let the captive birds loose—but they would not survive when they have been bred in captivity, fed by hand, banded for identification and sold with the appropriate documentation that allows Antonio and Alessandro to keep them legally. This is the way that Umbrians have hunted small birds for many years, and it is a part of this culture that still makes me uncomfortable. Mostly, I am not at ease with seeing these birds living their lives in such small cages, just for a few days of hunting each year.
Alessandro returned from a recent hunting trip with seven small birds, a low morning’s yield for him. I have seen him return with up to 70 of these small songbirds, and they clean and then freeze them for big “feeds,” but Alessandro tells me that they need a minimum of 120 birds to make one of these meals for a few people. I understand that they are cooked and eaten whole, but I hope to never see for myself. Seeing these beautiful birds in their cages, and then their wild relatives suspended from leather straps after being shot from the sky, only makes me sad that this is a sport. I guess I just don’t have a single hunting bone in my body, when I’d much rather hear them sing.