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THE BLACK CAP (Sylvia atricapilla)

Belongs to the Sylviidae family.
Although the name of this bird is quite familiar, only residents of the area where it lives have seen it. It is known in Greek as "ampelourgos" and in the Cypriot dialect as "ampelopouli" (bird of the vineyards) but also as "sykallidi" (from the Greek word "syko"= fig), because from August to October it feeds busily on figs more than grapes. However, its main activity in the vineyards is catching the myriad of insects among the fruit and foliage.

The Blackcap is a dull-plumaged bird, greyish olive above, pale grey below with a faint olive wash on the flanks. The male has a very distinctive black cap, hence the name, whereas the female has a bright chestnut cap; the cap helps in identifying the bird. Its bill and legs are black.

It can often be heard singing from dense bushes of thickets, in a pretty high pitched warble. Its flight is a rapid flutter from bush to bush or among the trees.

The main body of black caps arrives in Cyprus by mid-March. They come in thousands from central Africa where they spend the winter, on their way to Europe and especially northern countries where they breed.

They are seen mainly in the Paralimni, Skarinou, Karpasia, Myrtou and Polis Chrysochou regions. The main autumn migration arrives at the beginning of September on their way back to central Africa, a number of which stay in Cyprus throughout the winter. At this time of the year they are well fed and fat as they have covered only a short distance of their long voyage.

The blackcap has been considered a culinary delicacy from the Middle Ages and to this date thousands of them fall victim to the lime-sticks set out by the villagers. John Locke, an Englishman who visited the island in 1553, makes the first reference to the trade in pickled or marinated "Becaficoes", which was well established even in those days; he adds that "they annually send almost 1200 jarres of pots to Venice". Many subsequent writers refer to this article of diet, still a favorite dainty. In 1576, the well educated traveller Porcacchi notes:... "there are birds of all kinds: in most esteem are those found nowhere else as certain little birds called vine-birds". Keeping an itinerary of his visit to Cyprus between September 1598 and March 1599, Ioannes Cotovicus, a Professor at the University of Utrecht writes about the famous birds: "Infinite numbers of them are preserved in jars with vinegar and savory herbs and sent for (950 725 B.C.) Cyprus Museum sale to Venice, making a dainty dish greatly in request with princes and lords throughout Italy". Later on, Pietro Della Valle recording his visit to Ayia Napa in September 1625 writes: "We found and ate in this place a large quantity of beccafichi, called by the Greeks sykalidia which at this season are caught in such abundance that besides the numbers that are consumed in the island itself, thousands are exported in vinegar to Venice and elsewhere" (Excerpta Cypria, pages 72, 166, 200, 213).

In the Cypriot folklore it is believed that the blackcaps are carried by the storks. A probable explanation of this widespread popular conception is the fact that when storks are passing over Cyprus in August, as they are flying in a right angle pattern, one can distinctly discern among the loud screeching of the storks the high-pitched warbling of the small birds they carry on their backs. In traditional folk poetry, when small girls hear their call, they come outdoors to watch them pass and pulling at their plaits they hop and sing:

"ssoiviv ssoiviv tou lakkou tzai tosa ta mallia mou"

(I wish my hair is as long as the long rope of the water well)

In fact they wish their hair grew as long as the sides of the right angled storks' flight pattern and they wish they grew into fine young women. Boys come out and sing only the first verse while the village elders say: "here come the storks carrying the blackcaps ".

Over the last years the number of blackcaps has dropped dramatically, as they keep falling prey of lime-sticks or nets.

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