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Cyprus jobless turn to illegal songbird trapping

Thursday - 1/31/2013, 8:06am  ET

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. Small birds, called ambelopoulia in Greek, are considered a delicacy in Cyprus and poachers supply a lucrative market. Amid an economic crisis that has seen unemployment hit record levels on the east Mediterranean island, jobless people are turning to poaching to help them make ends meet. (AP Photo/Petros Karadjias)

Associated Press

NICOSIA, Cyprus (AP) -- It's just before first light and the bird-catcher strings nets among the orange, pomegranate, fig and carob trees in his orchard. The sound of chirping emanates from inside a massive carob -- a trick sent from speakers to attract tiny songbirds. By mid-morning, the man disentangles about a half-dozen blackcaps, snaps their necks with his teeth and drops them in a bucket.

For centuries, the migratory songbirds have been a prized delicacy among Cypriots. They are also an illegal one, as entry into the European Union forced Cyprus to ban the tradition of catching the creatures, some endangered, in nets or on sticks slathered with a glue-like substance.

Now economic crisis is luring many out-of-work Cypriots back into the centuries-old trade. They risk stiff fines and even jail time by supplying an underground market for the tiny songbirds illicitly served up in the country's tavernas -- but they say it's their only way to make ends meet.

Served whole either boiled or pickled, the fatty birds are such an ugly sight on a plate that outsiders find it hard to fathom how there could be any profit to be made from them. For many Cypriots, however, the tangy-sweet taste of the birds is pure bliss.

Supporters of trapping 'ambelopoulia,' as the blackcaps, robins and other warblers are known locally, ruefully reminisce about how until recently the practice was widely considered an ingrained part of local culture, one so lucrative that it sustained entire livelihoods and put countless kids through college.

That changed when Cyprus joined the European Union in 2004 and authorities began cracking down. Trappers were cast as greedy villains out to line their pockets without regard for the ensnared birds. The threat of a maximum EUR17,000 ($22,500) fine, a three-year jail term or both persuaded many to quit trapping.
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