More caged birds than wild: Javan songbird crisis revealed
In Java, there are now more songbirds in cages than in forests. Fierce demand for lucrative song competitions is driving multiple species to the brink – but in a region where bird-keeping is a cultural mainstay, complex solutions are required.
Thirty men squat on concrete outside a colourful urban café on the Indonesian island of Java. Their gaze is focused on a rainbow palate of cages dangling from a corrugated metal roof. They listen even more intently – for inside the structures, birds are competing to get their songs heard. The onlookers are just as invested in the winner – singing competitions such as this are commonplace in Indonesian culture – with massive cash prizes at stake.
Indonesia loves its songbirds, and bird-keeping is as commonplace in much of Indonesia as keeping cats and dogs is in the west. In 2019, Manchester Metropolitan University’s Harry Marshall estimated that one in three Javan households keeps caged birds, the collective total reaching 66–84 million – one for every two islanders. This love has in recent years manifested in singing competitions known as ‘Kicau Mania’. Tragically, however, this love is now driving many Asian passerines towards extinction, especially as the cash prizes, and thus the stakes, have escalated. The result: on Java today, more songbirds remain under lock and key, Marshall estimates, than fly freely in (what remains of) Java’s forests.
Were Java’s caged birds exclusively captive-bred, this would be far less problematic. And indeed, many have never experienced wilderness, most obviously the non-native lovebirds Agapornis spp. and Island Canary Serinus canaria that comprise over half Java’s avian pets. But Marshall and his team also report three native species and two native genera that number over a million birds in captivity – primarily extracted from the wild.
So fulsome a ‘harvest’ cannot be gathered without harm – particularly for species endemic to a country where extensive deforestation persists despite admirable government-driven reductions. Last year the recently-formed IUCN Species Survival Commission Asian Songbirds Trade Specialist Group added another 16 birds to its priority list, which now numbers 44 taxa heavily impacted by songbird trade. Of these, 21 are already listed as globally threatened, of which 19 inhabit Indonesia. The Nine Critically Endangered species include the Javan Pied Starling Gracupica jalla, whose wild population (under 50 birds) is dwarfed by the island’s captive contingent (1.1 million).
Most of these species were uplisted by BirdLife during the 2016 Red List update. The subsequent greater understanding of songbird trade has deepened concern. Two years later, the Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus was uplisted to Critically Endangered and Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora, a species well-recognised by bird fanciers, to Endangered in its native range. In 2019, the Javan White-eye Zosterops flavus, Sumatran Leafbird Chloropsis media and Greater Green Leafbird Chloropsis sonnerati were also uplisted. “It is not that the problem has particularly worsened since 2016”, says Anuj Jain, BirdLife Asia’s Bird Trade Co-ordinator, “but rare species continue to be caught from the wild and continue to decline to the point where trends are more visible”.
Keeping pet birds is a long-established Indonesian hobby with profound cultural roots. “But birds also offer financial gains,” observes Roger Safford, BirdLife’s Preventing Extinctions Programme Manager. “Songbird competitions are big business, providing substantial employment.” Forest poachers catch birds, which are sold via successive traders to vendors at major markets Java-wide, where serried ranks of colourful cages are crammed with birds before they reach their final owners.
As songbird contests burgeon, so demand heightens. Nationwide, Ria Saryanthi, Conservation Partnership Adviser at Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner), estimates five million people participate: “Even small-scale events attract 50–100 contestants plus hundreds of spectators. Prize money can exceed a billion Indonesian rupiah (US $70,000),” says Saryanthi. Their birds’ vocal outpourings are judged on melody, duration and volume, and the rewards are sufficient for professionals to invest thousands of dollars in proficient songsters.
Since 2016, the practice has extended well beyond Java. “Indonesian songbird competition organisers have expanded geographically, including to the separate nation of Brunei”, says Jain. “This year COVID-19 restrictions have engendered a new brand of online songbird competitions, which anyone can join, regardless of location.” This makes competitions more accessible, and may continue after lockdown.
This all makes for a complex, culturally sensitive problem to surmount. BirdLife aims to bring illegal, unregulated and unsustainable trade in birds to an end. The adjectives are pertinent: BirdLife is not satisfied with only combating solely unlawful trade – if it threatens populations, it is unacceptable. There’s an avian welfare dimension too: among sunbirds, for example, up to half the poached individuals die in transit before reaching markets. Finally, and topically, wherever large numbers of animals and people occupy small spaces, there is an inevitable disease-transmission risk within and between groups. We still know far too little about such risks.
"Success will depend on whether enforcement serves as adequate deterrent – which presently it does not."
BirdLife is approaching the conundrum from multiple angles. “Projects typically involve understanding trappers’ roles and needs, reducing demand, enforcing laws at markets and capture sites, and rapid response when infractions are detected,” says Safford. Deciphering the drivers of trade and songbird keeping will inform Burung Indonesia’s approach to effecting behavioural change. The key transformation would be to shift contests from using wild-caught to captive-bred birds. Supported by VBN (BirdLife in the Netherlands), Burung Indonesia is encouraging select songbird competition organisers to limit entries to captive-bred birds and is providing technical support to the government in developing bird contest regulations.
Shifting the balance of songbirds’ provenance towards captive-bred stock may help the status of birds like starlings and bulbuls, which breed readily in captivity, but perhaps not more finicky leafbirds. Success will depend on the cost of investment by the breeder relative to paying less for wild-caught birds, and whether enforcement serves as adequate deterrent – which presently it does not.
As Asian Songbirds in Trade Specialist Group vice-chair, Jain considers education and community engagement to be key to solving the songbird crisis. He co-chairs the community engagement group that, in his words, has managed to: “bring together different organisations and experts working with communities dependent on songbird trade to understand the drivers of demand along the supply chain, share lessons learned, as well as pilot demand-reduction approaches.”
A regional approach is increasingly important. Songbirds are traded across national borders, for example between Brunei, Kalimantan and Malaysian Sarawak. In response, BirdLife is working to strengthen regulations on international trade. CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) is an important part of the story. Although just 1.4% of traded songbirds are currently CITES-listed, parties recently resolved to commission a study of international songbird trade to inform management and conservation priorities.
Of course, there’s little benefit eradicating unsustainable trade of wild-caught birds unless their habitat is preserved. Burung Indonesia, BirdLife and Manchester Metropolitan University are conducting extensive field surveys in montane Java, identifying key locations to protect for threatened species, then working with partners to conserve them. “Within 5–10 years, Burung Indonesia would like the population of wild songbirds in native Indonesian habitat to increase and the poaching of wild songbirds to no longer constitute a significant threat”, says Saryanthi. A dawn chorus of endemic birds, singing freely in protected forests, makes for a pleasing vision indeed.
BirdLife’s efforts are made possible in part by its membership of the Restore Species partnership, which works to prevent extinctions caused by illegal and unsustainable trade and hunting, and poisoning.