So far on my challenge on nature photography inspired journey of the seven continents, we’ve covered Africa, Asia and Australia. Now we move on to Europe.
I didn’t understand why Tuscany was so eerily quiet. Shouldn’t this countryside be alive with bird calls? That was until the morning I awoke to the sounds of gun shot. On that morning, the window panes of the house reverberated deep within their foot-wide stone sills with each loud pop, quaking as if in a hurricane. I bolted from bed, wondering if my formerly idyllic hillsides were caught in Mafia cross-fire. I gazed out the window to find a row of pick-up trucks lining the neighboring vineyard. A pair of wizened gentleman in ivy caps strolled away from the vehicles, hunting rifles slung across their shoulders and a pack of barking dogs leading their way.
I had discovered a small patch of woods at the foot of my hill the previous evening. It had been too dark to explore its maze of trails at the time, but I had heard my first birds of my Tuscany stay there and my plan was to return this sunrise. The blasts suggested reconsideration. Safety certainly seemed an issue, yet this would be my last opportunity. Could I give it up? I decided no, but as a precaution rather than walk, I would drive past the vineyards and park by the woods to have a quick escape option.
The parked trucks lined the dirt road and I passed another arriving. I tried to calm my unease by waving and smiling cheerily at the driver, needing to know that these were friendly old men gathered for a harmless traditional weekend outing. My greeting was met with a sullen glare; the man drove on and my concerns grew. I walked more quickly to the cover of the forest and felt somehow more secure despite the continued gun blasts and barking dogs. There was little chance of seeing wildlife in this din, but I focused on the beauty of the woods themselves and my anxieties dimmed. Trails webbed out in every direction and I followed one, then another. The patch, a conservation easement if my interpretation of Italian signs was correct, was indeed small and I re-routed frequently to avoid merging with the highway or house-lined roads. I glimpsed grape vines through gaps in the bushes along a particularly promising pathway and realized I would soon emerge at a distant corner of my familiar vineyard. I tentatively continued, curious about the view but leery of losing my veil of forest. There seemed to be one last bend between me and a clearing; and then I heard voices.
One man addressed another in conversational tone, then I heard the crack of a rifle and smelled gun powder. I froze, hairs upright along my arms and neck. I heard feet pounding through underbrush and ferocious barks fast approaching. I felt like I’d been transported to a war zone, worse I felt as if I were the thing being hunted. I had heard the men talking. I smelled their gun powder. It wasn’t that I actually believed they were after me, but hunting accidents happen and they didn’t know I was there. And how would a blood-thirsty pack of hounds respond to a girl in the woods? Adrenaline pulsed through my veins as I rushed back up the trail.
Another rifle blast and smells of gun powder greeted me as I relinquished my cover to scamper to my car. Several rows away I watched a hunter lower his rifle from the sky. A cloud of smoke wafted toward me and a small flock of birds scattered. Was he actually shooting at these little birds?
Back at the house, a quick internet search revealed the story of Tuscany hunters. National and European laws do discourage countries from allowing hunting of songbirds on their spring migration, but apparently not so much in autumn. Birds along this Mediterranean flyway are consistently slaughtered as they move southward. Local hunting lobbies apparently are totally powerful here and no local politician would enforce a hunting ban. In fact, quite the opposite occurs, landowners are prohibited from limiting hunters access to their otherwise private lands. Hunters weren’t supposed to shoot within 300 feet of a residence, but I was pretty convinced some of the shots outside my window had been much closer.
That night I dined one last time at what had become my favorite restaurant. The owner was an extraordinary and enlightened chef, a culinary entrepreneur who prized his locally sourced ingredients. Knowing he depended on the area’s hunters and gatherers for his stock, I carefully inquired about the songbird hunters. He shook his head and reassured me that this was illegal and he would not serve such things in his restaurant. Even if it were legal, proper cooking of these birds took hours on a spit and required eating the meat at the precise moment of readiness. Such preparations, he assured me, were impractical in a restaurant. I nodded understandingly and he leaned in. His voice dropped as he told me he could prepare this for me in his own home if I was interested. In hushed tones he asked how much longer I would be in town, noting it may take a few days to acquire the birds. When I confessed that I was leaving the next day, he shook his head again, in sorrow for my missed opportunity.
“If you come back, you let me know,” he urged. A blissful expression came across his face as he kissed the tips of his fingers and tossed them into the air, “Sparrow’s butt is like heaven.”
No wonder the skies here were so silent.