As dawn broke on November 9, Allain Bougrain-Dubourg arrived at a rural farm in the Landes region of France with a mission: He was there to save birds. Dubourg is the president of the League for the Protection of Birds (LPO), and during a recent aerial survey, he and his team had spotted some cleared out patches in the farm’s corn fields—the telltale sign of a songbird trap. They were there as part of “Operation Chaffinches 2015,” and their plan was to catch poachers in the act and report them to police (after releasing any trapped birds).

In the early light, Dubourg and his team of activists—plus some journalists along for the ride—poked around the farm searching for traps. (“We do it in the morning before anyone is up,”says LPO’s Head of International Alison Duncan.) But they were soon spotted by two farmers, one of whom, in the heat of the moment, forgot to slip on his trousers before sprinting outside to confront the intruders. He did, however, spare a second to grab a shovel, which he then used to smack Dubourg on the back. Yes, the president of LPO was attacked with a shovel by a pants-less farmer, and it was all caught on camera.

Dubourg shows a Brambling trapped in a cage in a corn field during the November 9 raid. Photo: Gaizka Iroz/AFP/Getty

The Serious Problem Behind the Silly Photo

Bizarre as the morning’s events were, the threat trappers pose to songbirds in France is nothing to laugh at. At this specific home, LPO found some 20 matoles—cages used to capture migrating songbirds as they feed on the ground. “They say the traps are for skylarks" —which is legal—"but everyone knows that they’re heavily used for Chaffinches,” Duncan says. (When the traps are in use, they host species-specific decoys, so it’s easy to identify the target.) A Chaffinch is a small blue-grey-capped bird that’s quickly declining, protected by the European Union, and currently migrating through Langes.

Eating Chaffinches in stew and on skewers is “a tradition for people who have always lived in the countryside, which are often the older members of society,” Duncan says. While Chaffinches may be lured into the traps in the winter, other seasons bring different birds. In August and September, the little Ortolan makes its way from Northern Europe to Africa and is trapped, despite the fact that hunting this tiny (but tasty) bird is illegal. Thanks to the Ortolan’s flavor—when traditionally prepared it’s “enveloped in fat that tastes subtly like hazelnut,” according to the New York Times—the small songbirds are coveted among top chefs, and can fetch as much as 150 Euros in underground markets. An estimated  30,000 to 50,000 of these culinary delights are nabbed in France each year, Duncan says.

Trapping adds to the stress that  large-scale agriculture already puts on these species— France’s Chaffinch population has declined by 76 percent in the last 30 years, and Ortolans took a 40 percent dive between 2001 and 2011, according to the Times.

Speaking Up for Songbirds

Though trapping these birds in France is banned, the government “turns a blind eye” to it, Duncan says. Hunting is extremely popular, but because it is illegal, it can’t be reframed as a conservation tool. “Today there are hunters at every level of the political system, which is why they hold so much influence,” she says.

Still, LPO, the French branch of BirdLife International, won’t stand down. “LPO is obliged to do the job that the police do not,” says Yves Verilhac, the organization’s director. Until regional police enforce songbird laws, the League says it will continue to take matters into its own hands—or, in this case, right on the  back—by scoping out violators, using their guerrilla-style tactics to release trapped birds, and filing a complaint with the European Union for each trap they find. 

After the showdown in Landes, Dubourg and the others went to the hospital with minor injuries (in addition to slashed car tires and lost glasses). LPO plans to sue the farmers for both the battering and the illicit bird traps. For their part, the farmers say they will be suing LPO for trespassing.

Still, the team managed to set six Chaffinches loose and disable the remaining ground traps—reason enough to call Operation Chaffinches 2015 a success so far.

How to Help

Take action against illegal bird poachers by signing a petition against it here.  

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