ROME — It seemed like just another violation of coronavirus social-distance restrictions when the Italian police broke up a luncheon of about 20 people last week near the northern city of Brescia.
But then they stumbled onto an illegal massacre on the menu.
The authorities caught the group in a local government building preparing a cookout of about 65 protected migratory birds, mostly finches, including two hawfinches, a shy species, and one brambling, known by its orange breast and white rump.
The forest division of the carabinieri, Italy’s national military police force, were tipped off about the illegal lunchtime gathering by a phone call and found the guests surrounding a buffet of appetizers and drinks but no main courses. The guests assured the police that everything was within regulations, with masks on and distance respected. But upon further inspection, carabinieri officers found a large pan filled with dozens of fried songbirds hidden beneath the table.
They recognized the protected species, officers said, by the shape of their bills. Some are globally threatened.
“Shameful,” Italy’s anti-hunting league said.
“Enraging,” the animal protection league said.
“A delicacy,” said Floriano Massardi, a regional official who, like many in the area, likes to eat songbirds on a skewer.
The area where the forbidden feast took place, Gardone Val Trompia, is smack in the middle of an important migration route for thrushes, greenfinches and blackbirds.
For centuries, hunters in the area have laid traps for them in the bushes and on tree branches or shot them out of the sky. Whether captured on the ground or in the air, they often met their end next to polenta or impaled on “the Brescian spit.”
But the local tradition has become largely illegal as legislators have moved to protect a growing number of species and bird families. Nevertheless, the valleys north of Brescia have remained Italy’s most dangerous kill zone for many songbirds, with hundreds of thousands hunted illegally every year.
Italy itself is an avian danger zone. Five million protected birds are shot dead there every year. That’s about a fifth of the total birds illegally killed every year along the Mediterranean coast, Northern Europe and the Caucasus, according to BirdLife International.
Animal protection associations said they hoped the raid would put new focus on the illegal activity in the country that is the most egregious songbird killer in Europe.
The punishment for those who attended the lunch will depend on what charges are brought, but the fine could be more than 2,000 euros for the guest who brought the birds.
Last week, a Brescia court held the first hearing of a local man who kept 788 dead songbirds in his freezer. They included robins, which are sold illegally for 3 to 5 euros to restaurants. They are particularly appreciated for their thin bill, which is, for some, considered edible.
In Italy, hunting any animal is permitted only with a license, and there are penalties for hunting protected species and selling them. For years, the issue has been at the center of a political clash between animal rights advocates often backed by progressive politicians — which have demanded stricter limitations — and hunters’ associations and conservative politicians, who aim to facilitate hunting.
Animal rights activists point out that songbirds are in danger throughout Europe, with 40 once-abundant migratory species disappearing.
“There is a general crisis of biodiversity,” said Annamaria Procacci, a board member of ENPA, Italy’s animal protection league, and a former Green Party senator.
“And then there are people feasting on it.”
Mr. Massardi, the official who called the protected bramblings a delicacy, is a hunter who has proposed removing protections for some songbirds, including those on Friday’s menu. He said he wanted to save tradition.
He was acting “in the name of the Brescian spit,” he said, a typical dish made of skewered slices of pork, chicken, rabbit and songbirds. The chaffinch and the brambling, he said, give the spit a distinctive tart taste that he has not savored for 10 years.
Mr. Massardi did not condone Friday’s luncheon, saying it was an offense to all the restaurant owners suffering the closures imposed by the government. But he did not see why the government should forbid what was on the table.
“I don’t understand why chicken, yes, and these birds, no,” he said. “Chickens are birds, too.”