Ambelopoulia is a controversial dish of grilled, fried, pickled or boiled songbirds which is a traditional dish enjoyed by native Cypriots and served in some Cypriot restaurants. It is illegal in Cyprus as it involves trapping wild birds such as blackcaps and European robins. Trapping kills birds indiscriminately, thus internationally protected species of migratory birds are killed as well. Enforcement of the ban has been lax, so many restaurants serve the dish without consequence. As a result almost 2,418,000 birds across the whole of Cyprus are estimated to have been killed during 2010. According to a BirdLife Cyprus report released in 2014, over 1.5 million migrating songbirds are killed annually, and the number is increasing each year. In 2015 it is estimated that over 2 million birds were killed including over 800,000 on the British Territories and a further 800,000 on the British Territories in the autumn of 2016.
The birds are trapped in either of two ways. Black, fine-mesh nylon fishing nets, which are difficult to see, are strung between planted acacia trees. Electronic bird calls lure the birds to entangle their wings and legs, or alternatively gravel is brought in by truck and is thrown at the base of the trees to scare the birds into the nets. Others are trapped using glue sticks made from the berries of a local tree or birdlime. The glue sticks are placed on the branches of trees, and any birds that perch on them are stuck until the trapper returns to kill them (usually with a tooth pick to the throat). Often the legs of the birds are so stuck to the glue sticks that they need to be pulled off. Protests against the removal of acacia scrub has resulted in 36 ha remaining in 2016, compared with 56 ha in 2014.
The trappers defend their activity by citing the practice as traditional Cypriot food gathering and claiming that this has been an important source of protein for the natives for many thousands of years, even though the practice has been illegal since 1974. BirdLife Cyprus has identified restaurants as the main culprits as they provide the financial incentives. The enthusiasm Cypriots and many other visitors to the island have for this delicacy despite its illegality has resulted in the development of a very profitable industry. Poaching for ambelopoulia has been on the rise in recent years, involving by 2011 a "mafia-like operation" that include poachers, dealers, exporters, and restaurant operators that participate in the illegal business estimated to be worth about 5 million euro at that time. The birds reportedly sell for five euros each and it is estimated by Cypriot authorities to have earned criminals on the island 15 million euro in 2015.
Since the entrails of the birds are not removed, as it is not cost effective to do so, the consumer is encouraged to swallow the bird whole. Unsuspecting diners may be served much cheaper farmed birds such as immature quails by some restaurants.
- "Αμπελοπούλια ξιδάτα". foodmuseum.cs.ucy.ac.cy (in Greek). Cyprus Food Virtual Museum. Retrieved 26 November 2015.
- BirdLifeCyprus (August 5, 2010). "Frontline News on Illegal Bird Trapping in Cyprus - Spring 2010". Retrieved August 12, 2010.
- "Cyprus kills 1.5 million migrating songbirds to eat in fetish dish".
- "RSPB Mass killing continues on British military base in Cyprus". BirdGuides. Archived from the original on 20 November 2016. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
- "Hundreds of thousands of birds still being illegally killed on British military base in Cyprus but annual increase halted". RSPB. Retrieved 16 March 2016.
- "No End To Cyprus Bird Toll". BBC Wildlife. Vol. 35 no. 5. 2017. p. 54.
- Nathan Morley (June 11, 2011). "Poachers 'mafia-like' operation". Cyprus Mail. Archived from the original on July 15, 2011. Retrieved July 7, 2011.