9 Jul 2021

A million caged, none in the wild: freeing the Javan Pied Starling

Over a million kept as pets in Indonesian homes, yet likely none left in their natural habitat: this is the extraordinary story of the Javan Pied Starling and what it represents for the Asian songbird crisis. Thankfully, plans for breeding and reintroduction raise hopes.

50-100 years ago, this was one  of the commonest birds  in Java’s farmlands © Simon Bruslund
50-100 years ago, this was one of the commonest birds in Java’s farmlands © Simon Bruslund
By James Lowen

It’s the story of the Critically Endangered Javan Pied Starling Gracupica jalla – its troubled present but also its surprisingly hopeful future – in a single photograph. Crammed into five small cages, 42 individuals are shown for sale in an Indonesian village. Representatives of the relentless pet trade that has devastated populations of many Indonesian bird species, the imprisoned assemblage greatly exceeds any surviving wild contingent. The Javan Pied Starling no longer flies free – but a new initiative from BirdLife International and other organisations seeks to change all that.

With no recent records of unequivocally wild starlings, this Indonesian endemic may already be extinct in the wild. In captivity, however, it is anything but. During 2019, researchers revealed the scale of the Asian songbird crisis, estimating that 36 million Javanese households owned 66-84 million caged birds – more birds, shockingly, than remained in Java’s dwindling forests. A startling 1.14 million were Javan Pied Starlings.

“The situation is extraordinary – unique in bird conservation,” judges Dr Nigel Collar, BirdLife International Leventis Fellow in Conservation Biology. “Here is a bird that is likely extinct in the wild but which you can find quite easily in bird shops and homes. There is no other case like this.”

 

42 Javan Pied Starlings (plus others) for sale in  Marangan village, Indonesia, 2017  © Nigel Collar

 

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the formal scientific description of Javan Pied Starling. For much of the intervening period, however, it was considered a subspecies of Asian Pied Starling Gracupica contra – and thus not subject to IUCN Red List assessment. In 2016, Nigel Collar and Lynx Edicions’ Josep del Hoyo applied new taxonomic criteria that endorsed the original status of a full species.

With some ornithologists fearing that the Javan Pied Starling’s wild populations had already disappeared, it was catapulted onto conservationists’ radar. BirdLife declared the species Critically Endangered as part of a major ‘uplisting’ of Asian songbirds. “The impacts of wild harvest [of songbirds] are now glaringly visible,” says David Jeggo, Chair, IUCN Species Survival Commission Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group (ASTSG). The race was on to save this orange-faced, piebald songbird.

Rapidly understanding the starling became paramount. Research by Collar and ornithological consultant Bas van Balen, published earlier this year, laid bare the starling’s terrifying vanishing act, which had unfurled entirely unnoticed. “Fifty to hundred years ago,” van Balen explains, “the Javan Pied Starling was one of the commonest birds in Java’s farmlands. Now, no wild birds are known to survive – just occasional escapees.”

The magnitude of the population collapse is shocking. Early last century, the Javan Pied Starling was reportedly “among the most conspicuous residents of Java’s cultivated land ... impossible to overlook.” It thrived on the expanding swathes of agricultural land that followed the tide of deforestation, probing soil and pasture for earth-dwelling invertebrates such as earthworms. It was also habitual in urban areas, being judged one of Jakarta’s commonest birds during the 1930s – and one sufficiently audacious to enter kitchens for food scraps.

As late as the 1960s, this attractive starling remained widespread across much of Java, but its decline, Collar says, “was probably slow enough to go unnoticed”. By 1990, starlings were dribbling away on Bali and, by 1994, had vanished from Sumatra (to which they may have spread naturally following agricultural expansion rather than escaping from captivity). “Shortly before the start of this century,” Collar concludes, “the species abruptly and entirely vanished” from its entire range. He suspects that the few records since 2000 likely relate exclusively to caged birds.

 

A typical competition set-up – Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club, Singapore © VBN / Nature in Stock

 

Ingrained in culture

“Maintaining birds is part of Javanese culture.” This matter-of-fact opening to a paper about keeping caged birds by Indonesian social anthropologists Khoirul Mafaja and Fadly Husain demonstrates the cultural challenge facing conservationists seeking to address the Asian songbird crisis. Keeping pet birds such as Javan Pied Starling is a long-established Indonesian hobby with profound roots – like owning cats and dogs in the west.

Recently, bird-keeping has also become big business. One manifestation of this commercial dimension, affecting many passerines – albeit not Javan Pied Starling – is songbird competitions (known as kicau mania) which are now commonplace, with massive cash prizes financing supply chains connecting forest poachers, traders, vendors and owners.

Trapping for the pet trade has been a principal cause of the Javan Pied Starling’s collapse. By 1953, it had reportedly become one of Java’s most popular caged birds. But although islanders’ thirst for songbirds has severely reduced populations of many Indonesian species, “no traded species is known to have experienced so acute a decline,” Collar explains. The birds’ fearlessness and conspicuous nests, rendering the trappers’ job straightforward, must have played a big part in this unprecedented population collapse.

But was there something else going on? Unlike almost all the 44 species that the ASTSG considers heavily impacted by songbird trade, the Javan Pied Starling’s preference for open-country habitats means that it did not suffer from deforestation. Instead, the starling has suffered another problem: the application of agricultural chemicals has widely eradicated its prey.

From 1979-1998, Indonesia’s pesticide use increased ten-fold. By 2017, over 80% of shallot farmers at a former Javan Pied Starling stronghold reported the complete loss of earthworm biomass from their soils. “Pesticides are believed to have greatly depleted the starling’s topsoil food resource,” asserts Simon Bruslund (Marlow Birdpark and ASTSG member).

 

One of four Javan Pied  Starlings in central Jakarta  in 2011 (likely escapees) © B Emmanuel & K Yordan

 

A chance of freedom

Saving a species that is likely extinct in the wild will be even more complicated than the already lofty ambitions of BirdLife and Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) to curb illegal, unregulated and unsustainable trade in birds. In March, van Balen and Collar’s findings galvanised an emergency ASTSG meeting, which broadly agreed to capitalise on the unprecedented bonanza of a million captive Javan Pied Starlings by assembling a population for conservation breeding and eventual reintroduction. From the very jaws of defeat, there now appears a tangible – and rather inspirational – prospect of snatching victory.

The conservation breeding project is being led by Prigen Conservation Breeding Ark, whose curator of birds, Jochen Menner, hopes that “many well-respected institutions will join efforts to create a large, viable ex-situ starling population.” Bruslund observes that most participants will be Indonesian zoos. To date, feedback has been encouraging, with a reported very high willingness to co-operate. Menner is buoyed by having “the luxury of numbers” of captive starlings – not usually the case when working with Critically Endangered species. He believes it imperative that the first controlled semi-wild releases commence very soon.

The approach is not without problems. Menner cautions that captive populations contain “mutant plumages and possibly even hybrids, so acquiring genetically pure birds will be an issue.” Moreover, there is little point in releasing captive birds into the wild should agricultural chemicals deprive them of a food supply or should they become swiftly targeted by trappers.

Accordingly, the ASTSG aspires to create what Anuj Jain (BirdLife Asia’s Bird Trade Co-ordinator and ASTSG Community Engagement Vice-Chair) calls ‘safe havens’ – sites where released birds will encounter neither chemical-driven constraints on their food supply nor trapping. One likely release site is the 280,000-hectare UNESCO Ciletuh– Pelabuhan Ratu Geopark in West Java.

“Safe havens will only work if communities are fully engaged and supportive,” Jain argues, citing experience from developing Village Management Resource Agreements in Indonesia, “where communities manage forest resources, watersheds or key species sustainably in return for help enhancing livelihoods.” Jain is also keen to explore using the Javan Pied Starling as a flagship for pesticide-free agriculture: “Maybe one day we will have ‘Javanese Starling rice,’ free from pesticides, where communities are incentivised and Javan Pied Starlings roam free.”


Burung Indonesia's work to combat the songbird trade is supported by the March Conservation Fund and Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Partner).

 

If you would like to help us continue this important work, you can donate to our appeal here.