They are among Europe’s most beloved, colourful little birds – and for a group of Italians sitting down to a clandestine lunch, they were the main course. Police in the north of the country are investigating a group of public officials who were allegedly caught red-handed about to tuck into dozens of illegally hunted birds, including chaffinches, goldfinches, siskins and bramblings. The officials, from the villages of Valle Trompia and Gardone Val Trompia near the city of Brescia, are being investigated for contravening wildlife protection and hunting laws. They are also accused of breaking Covid-19 lockdown regulations, which prohibit gatherings of more than a few people, when they convened for the illegal feast in a council building. The meal they were about to sit down to allegedly included some rarely-seen species such as hawfinches and red crossbills. More than 60 birds were found by Carabinieri officers – around three tiny bodies for each diner. Massimo Ottelli, the president of the local council to which the officials belong, said he was “very saddened” by the incident and ready to take disciplinary action. The National Association for the Protection of Animals said: “We are disappointed and angered – those who should be leading by example are often those who don’t care about the law.” The Anti-Hunting League called the incident “shameful” but not surprising, saying that the region around Brescia is “the worst in Italy, and one of the worst in Europe, for poaching.” Eating such small song birds may not appeal to many people but it is seen as a delicacy in some parts of Europe. Gourmets in France are notorious for their love of eating the ortolan bunting, tiny birds which are captured alive, fed grain, drowned in a vat of Armagnac and then roasted whole. Diners drape their heads with linen napkins as they crunch their way through the birds’ bones. The napkin is to preserve the aroma of the roasted birds – and, it is said, to hide the diners’ shame from the eyes of God.