1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ortolan

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ORTOLAN (Fr. ortolan, Lat. hortulanus, the gardener bird, from hortus, a garden), the Emberiza hortulana of Linnaeus, a bird celebrated for the delicate flavour of its flesh, and a member of the Emberizidae, a Passerine family not separated by most modern authors from the Fringillidae. A native of most European countries — the British Islands (in which it occurs but rarely) excepted — as well as of western Asia, it emigrates in autumn presumably to the southward of the Mediterranean, though its winter quarters cannot be said to be accurately known, 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 long ago said in France, and apparently with truth, 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 even beyond the arctic circle — and then generally frequents corn-fields and their neighbourhood. In appearance and habits it much resembles its congener the yellow-hammer, but wants the bright colouring of that species, its head for instance being of a greenish-grey, instead of a lively 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 our boys do to those of the yellow-hammer. 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, other insects and seeds. Ortolans are 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 become enormously fat and are 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 Ortolan-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) shares 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 hortensis of modern writers); but in Italy any soft-billed small bird that can be snared or netted in its autumnal emigration passes under the name in the markets and cook-shops. The “beccafico,” however, is not as a rule artificially fattened, and on this account is preferred by some sensitive tastes to the Ortolan.

(A. N.)