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Songbirds are disappearing from the wild – here's why

  • Written by  Helena Hosking
  • Published in Wildlife
Songbirds are disappearing from the wild – here's why
20 Sep
2019
Around 75 million birds are kept as pets in Indonesia, threatening to wipe out some wild bird populations

There are more songbirds in captivity than in the wild on the Indonesian island of Java, research by Manchester Metropolitan University and Chester Zoo has found. One-third of the island’s population keep birds as ornamental pets or, in the songbird’s case, as contestants in birdsong competitions for cash prizes. Certain songbird species, such as the straw-headed bulbul, the white-crested laughingthrush and the Java magpie, are native to Indonesia and keeping them as pets is a long tradition in some regions. They hold a spiritual connotation seen as an important part of a balanced life for Javanese men. It’s been recorded that songbird keeping is more popular in eastern provinces of Java, where the Javanese population is more dense.

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A bird seller peddles his wares in a small bird shop in Java Photo Gabby SalazarA bird seller peddles his wares in a small bird shop in Java (Photo: Gabby Salazar)

Apart from being used for well-being purposes, songbirds are also seen as a valuable commodity in much of Indonesia, with their trade estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars to the overall economy. At an individual level, songbirds offer a financial incentive during ‘Kicau-mania’ – Indonesia’s regular singing contests for birds during which birds are rated on melody, duration and volume of their songs. Owners of winning birds can receive anything up to $50,000 in prize money.

Judges carefully assess birdsong at songbird competition in Yogyakarta Photo Bernd MarcordesJudges carefully assess birdsong at songbird competition in Yogyakarta (Photo: Bernd Marcordes)

These lucrative activities have made songbird populations in the wild decline so rapidly since the mid-1970s, that numbers have approached a tipping point, threatening many of the wild species with extinction. Manchester Metropolitan PhD student and Chester Zoo conservation scholar, Harry Marshall, has noted this ‘Asian songbird crisis’ as damaging to not only the species’ population, but also the ecosystem services they provide such as pollination.

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Part of the problem, the report suggests, is that this crisis is not being mitigated or solved in Indonesia as notable members of the country’s political elite support the songbird contests. Many of the competitions are exclusively for White-rumped Shamas, making them one of the most popular (and expensive) birds with over three million being owned throughout the country. Unsurprisingly, this highly-demanded bird, once widespread in Java, is now found almost exclusively in captivity.

The popular Orange headed Thrush in its drunken master singing trance Photo Harry Marshall The popular orange-headed thrush in its drunken master singing trance (Photo: Harry Marshall)

Stuart Marsden, a professor of conservation ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University is now urging action against the captivity of these birds, stating ‘we need to act now before we reach the point of no return’. Chester Zoo has been striving to combat the songbird crisis for a number of years through community awareness and education projects in Southeast Asia, as well as breeding programmes for rare songbirds in Chester Zoo.

However, there is hope that these threatened populations can rehabilitate in the wild as demand adapts to their reduced availability, shifting instead to more abundant species such as lovebirds (whose popularity has increased seven-fold over the last decade) or to birds bred solely in captivity instead of caught in the wild. ‘A number of influential and well-respected song competition groups hold events exclusively for captive-bred birds,’ says Andrew Owen, a curator of birds at Chester Zoo, ‘thus reducing the pressure on wild bird populations. We hope that these events can become the norm as opposed to the exception before it’s too late.’

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