Tough Times for the Sky Lark

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Among non-French speakers Alouette gentille alouette is probably one of the best known of all French songs and dates back several hundred years although it is difficult to establish the exact date on which it first surfaced.

Hark Hark the Lark une Alouette des champs (Alauda arvensis) (Credit Wikipedia)

It is widely used by French language teachers for whom it as an easy way to teach the names of body parts to children studying French. Let’s however set aside the ramifications of teaching our most precious little ones, through the medium of a song that deals exclusively with plucking out feathers from the head, nose, eyes and wings of a bird that in turn lives almost entirely on seed and weighs in at around fifty grams — and focus on its origin.

For several hundred years the French trapped widely in Canada and it was these French-speaking fur trappers who introduced the song to Canada, using it to alleviate some of the pain and monotony of paddling long distances across that country’s vast lakes and waterways. Soldiers from the United States then brought it back to their country after picking it up in France during World War I.

The alouette is a lark that once thrived in the woodlands of Europe. There are many different types of lark and there is still some dispute as to whether the song refers to a wood lark or a sky lark. The numbers of both these species have declined due mainly to habitat destruction with the increase of modern agriculture practices, though they are not currently at risk of extinction. The lark is said to be the first bird to sing in the morning and it may be its early morning serenading that triggered the late risers into the taking revenge by ripping out his plumage. However they don’t seem to be quite as severe with the far more raucous farmyard cock – but then he is the national symbol!

In French folklore the lark also has a reputation as a gossip a bird that could not be relied upon to carry a message without stopping to share it with whoever he met in flight. Contrast this with that other well known song bird — the nightingale — that was regarded as far more discreet, even to the extent of delivering your message in Latin.

France just would not be France if there were not some recipe associated with our unfortunate gentille alouette. This song bird was widely consumed as light game throughout Europe but now are seldom found on menus largely because with the decline in their population it is difficult to sufficient birds to prepare a decent gourmet meal.


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A trawl through French hunting websites, however, quickly turns up several recipes and the bird is still be found on some menus in Italy and Spain. Normally it is eaten whole including the bones or baked in a pie. It is said that lark’s tongues in aspic was a favourite of the Roman emperors and according to the myths websitethe alouette is the most widely eaten song bird in existence. There is little evidence to back up the story of the larks tongue recipe but Roman legionnaires were referred to as alouettes by the Gauls because of their crested helmets which resembled a lark’s crest.

The recipe “alouette sans tete” should not be confused with that of the songbird — it is made from stuffed escalope of beef but looks like the bird minus its head.

Nothing to do with the lark but so called because they resemble the bird:  Alouettes sans tête (Credit Wikipedia)

The vocal range of both wood and sky larks is incredibly broad and they sing mainly to attract mates and to mark their territories. In China they make popular cage birds and in Beijing there is a tradition of teaching the birds thirteen different sounds which need to be sung in a distinct order. Birds that are able to correctly copy all thirteen sounds in the requisite sequence become very valuable.

Story: Mike Alexander

Mike Alexander is a regular contributor to French News Online, offering topical gardening advice in his monthly column and exploring quirky nature and food habits in France.

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