A native of most European countries and western Asia the Ortolan migrates in autumn to tropical Africa, returning at the end of April or beginning of May. Its distribution throughout its breeding range seems to be very local, and for this no obvious reason can be assigned. It was said in France to prefer wine-growing districts; but it certainly does not feed upon grapes, and is found equally in countries where vineyards are unknown. It reaches as far north as Scandinavia and beyond the Arctic Circle, frequenting corn-fields and their neighbourhoods. It is an uncommon vagrant in spring and particularly autumn to the British Isles.
The Ortolan is 16 cm in length and weighs 20 to 25 grams. In appearance and habits it much resembles its congener the Yellowhammer, but lacks the bright colouring of that species; the Ortolan's head, for instance, is greenish-grey, instead of a bright yellow. The somewhat monotonous song of the cock resembles that of the Yellowhammer.
Ortolan nests are placed on or near the ground; the eggs seldom show the hair-like markings so characteristic of most buntings' eggs.
Seeds are the natural diet, but beetles and other insects are eaten when feeding young.
In France it disappeared from 17 départements between 1960 and 1980, and numbers have fallen in another seven départements. The 1992 estimation for the French population is 15,000 pairs.
The reasons proposed for this strong regression are habitat degradation, reduction of nesting places, and changes in the agricultural landscape. Hunting (in particular in Landes) is responsible for taking about 50,000 birds per year (ten times the Ortolan population of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands).
It is a protected species in Europe and its sale is illegal in France, but Gascons still catch it by the end of summer to fatten it. This practice is politically sensitive and one of the reasons for the regional success of parties like that of Hunters and Fishers.
In September 2007, the French Government announced that it intended finally to enforce laws to protect the species that have been on the statute books for eight years.
Ortolans used to be netted in great numbers, kept alive in an artificially lighted, or darkened room to disrupt their feeding schedule, and fed with oats and millet. In a very short time they became enormously fat and were then killed for the table. If, as is supposed, the ortolan be the miliaria of Varro, the practice of artificially fattening birds of this species is very ancient.
In French the word ortolan is used so as to be almost synonymous with the English bunting; thus, the ortolan-de-neige is the Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis), the ortolan-de-riz is the rice-bird or Bobolink of North America (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), celebrated for its flavour. But the name is also applied to other birds much more distantly related, for the ortolan of some of the Antilles, where French is spoken, is a little ground dove of the genus Chamaepelia.
In Europe the beccafico (fig-eater) shared with the ortolan the highest honours of the dish, and this may be a convenient place to point out that the former is a name of equally elastic signification. The true beccafico is said to be what is known in Britain as the Garden Warbler (the Motacilla salicaria of Linnaeus, the Sylvia borin of modern writers); but in Italy any soft-billed small bird that could be snared or netted in its autumnal emigration passed under the name in the markets and cook-shops.
The beccafico, however, is not as a rule artificially fattened, and on this account was preferred by some sensitive tastes to the ortolan.
One way French diners ate ortolans was to cover their heads and face with a large napkin for the gourmet's aesthetic desire to absorb the maximum odour with the flavor. This famous use of the towel was launched by a priest, a friend of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Francois Mitterand's last meal included this specially prepared bird which was illegal to prepare and eat at that time.