Eating the Thing That Sings: A rough guide to music about plucking

April 15, 2010

by Heather Smith

YOU MAY FIND YOURSELF  humming it occasionally. You probably know at least a few of the words. What you haven’t realized is that this most recognizable and hummable French ditty is actually a folksong about plucking the feathers from a dead songbird. Why would you? It’s in French.

The origins of Alouette are shrouded in mystery and ethnomusicological dispute. It is sung in France. It is sung in Canada. Whatever its origins, it was dispersed through North America by French Canadian fur trappers, who would sing it not because they felt like they had something to say to a bird corpse, but because they needed a song to help them match their oarstrokes to each other as they paddled through the continent’s rivers looking for beaver.

The song, which involves the singer crooning about which body parts the singer intends to defeather next, is used today primarily for the purpose of teaching French Canadian schoolchildren the names of their own body parts. Subliminally, it also serves a more devious purpose: to convince those English-speaking people who actually bother to learn what the words mean that the French really, really like to kill songbirds.

Which they do. The most notorious is the ortolan, an endangered bird about the size of a child’s fist. François Mitterrand famously asked one to be prepared for him right before he died of cancer. The tiny birds are caught in the woods by illegal trappers (animal rights activists prowl the same woods looking for trapped ortolans to set free) and sold on the black market for $180 apiece. The ortolan is fattened on millet, drowned in armagnac, then plucked, cooked, and eaten whole, with a napkin over one’s head. The delicate bones are rumored to have the taste and consistency of hazelnuts. The napkin is meant both to trap the aroma of the bird and symbolically to conceal the greed of the diner from God. Because if there’s one time that a supreme, all-seeing deity can’t see what you’re doing, it’s when you’ve got a napkin on your head.

But really, we all like to eat songbirds. Because once you start looking, almost everything is a songbird. Taxonomically speaking, if you are a bird, as long as you use the syrinx — the bone at the bottom of your throat that functions somewhat the way the human trachea does — to communicate who you are, and where you are (instead of just saying “Look! A hawk!”), then you are a songbird. A crow is a songbird. It’s just that most people don’t like that particular song.

Birds learn to sing the way that humans learn to speak — first by babbling, then by synthesizing the sounds they hear into coherent music. Songbirds have been known to resolve conflict by singing the same song back and forth to each other until the two renditions are nearly identical. And there are rumors that we may have learned to sing from the birds — singing their own songs back to them. Perhaps out of curiosity, but more likely with the hope and intention of distracting them long enough to catch, pluck, and eat them.

This most recognizable and hummable French ditty is actually a folksong about plucking the feathers from  a dead songbird.

HEATHER SMITH is a Meatpaper editor. She is currently at work on a book about insects, humans, and the various misunderstandings that arise between them.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eleven.

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