One of the first pastimes the children of Alcalá learned was the hunting of small birds. At dawn, songbirds swarmed over the riverbank and the animal pens of La Coracha. On La Coracha many people raised a couple of pigs for slaughter and had a hen-house for domestic consumption. The birds came to get their first feed of the day, and created a great commotion. At daybreak they could satisfy their needs, because the fields provided plenty of seeds of all types. The flocks rose in a perfectly ordered group to fall upon the grasses and eat their fill. This took place very early, at the hour when the nuns of the Order of St Clare were getting up for Mass.
It was difficult to get up at that hour without waking the family. Francisco Almagro had two brothers, Juan and Pepe; his friend Gaspar had five brothers and five sisters. On Sundays they went to help the nuns with Mass and afterwards went down to El “Prao” to trap songbirds. They devised a rudimentary home-made alarm system. Francisco lived on the corner of Callejón Osorio and had an alarm clock. Gaspar had no alarm clock and lived on the other corner of the Calle la Amiga, right opposite Francisco. Gaspar tied one end of a cord round his ankle. The other end Francisco had in his bed. At exactly half past five, Francisco pulled the string and Gaspar jumped out of bed. They both went off together to help with Mass at the convent of the nuns of St Clare, which was at six in the morning.
The sun had not yet reached the Lario by the time they were putting out the liría at El “Prao”. They kept it in a tin; a natural glue, made of a sticky white substance and tree resin. Any bird which set foot on it could not get away and flapped its wings desperately trying to free itself. They also used various sorts of traps, but they preferred the liría. The traps broke the birds' legs or necks, whereas with the liría they could catch the birds without harming them and put them in cages. There, alongside another singing bird, the canaries, goldfinches, greenfinches and other songbirds would very quickly learn to sing. All the houses had songbirds in cages.
The early hours of the morning were the best for hunting. Vast flocks of small birds invaded the banks of the Barbate and the other rivers. The birds ate, drank and carried off seeds to their nests. All this coming and going took place before the heat of day impregnated the shady corners. They did a fair bit of damage in the sown fields. Insecticides, herbicides and fungicides had not yet made their merciless appearance. At the break of day, the birds had already begun their morning chorus.
The children knew inside out the flying species which crossed the skies of Alcalá. There were those of certain proportions, like partridges, geese, ducks, common pigeons and wood-pigeons, thrushes, turtle doves, starlings. And then there were the smaller ones, like siskins, greenfinches, goldfinches, crested larks, whitethroats, linnets, hummingbirds1, skylarks, nightingales, lapwings, cuckoos … Round about noon, when the heat was threatening, the trapped birds were collected and tied into a bundle. Then the boys would take a last look round at the liria traps and put the live birds into a cage.
They would return home very pleased with themselves. Their mothers would pluck the birds and daub them with aromatic herbs. The smell went right up the Callejón Osorio and the Calle la Amiga. From the kitchens of the bars, Dominguitos and Los Panaderos, came indescribable smells that the old folks could not resist. That flavour has remained forever in my childhood memories. Sometimes I return to Alcalá with the hope of finding it again. And on occasions it might waft from some house – I can smell it, remember it, crave it, but I cannot taste it.
Fortunately the little birds are coming back again to the Alcalá countryside, but not in the great flocks of the old days. And, equally fortunately, they are not slaughtered as they were then, because it is banned, although they are still under threat from herbicides. Modern hunting legislation has succeeded in eradicating it almost completely. These days children don't co-exist with the birds and animals of the countryside. Ordinary people can't go hunting any more because it is a hobby for the wealthy. Even the deer, wild boar and rabbits have to abide by the law in the Alcornocales.
Translated by Claire Lloyd
1. Hummingbirds are not found in Spain, but there is a large moth, the mariposa esfinge colibri, that looks like a hummingbird and behaves in a very similar manner.