Going for a Song?

White-rumped shama (Copsychus malabaricus) male, Khao Yai National Park, Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. Photo by JJ Harrison — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

By Elizabeth L. Bennett | November 18, 2022

What would a forest, urban garden or park be without the rich and diverse early morning bird chorus and sounds of birds throughout the day and at different seasons? Yet it is this unique and wonderful feature of so many birds — their songs — that is making them the targets of an alarming and growing threat: capture for the trade in live caged birds.

In many cases, the captured birds are destined for cages in or around peoples’ homes as pets and for enjoyment of their melodious singing. In parts of Asia, this has grown into a tradition of songbird competitions which are a highly popular cultural pastime involving large numbers of birds of multiple species. The large-scale capture and trade of song birds for the national and international trade is often illegal, and almost inevitably unsustainable, and is leading to major declines of an increasing number of species in the wild.

Birds’ songs have evolved to attract mates, defend territories against rivals, or warn others of danger. So by their very nature, calls are intended to make the birds conspicuous to their fellow birds. Unfortunately, that also makes them conspicuous to humans who use the calls to locate the birds and trap them by various methods to bring them into captivity.

“The white-rumped shama, a small forest bird with beautiful melodic songs, used to be found in tropical forests across South and Southeast Asia.”

The scale of the trade can be huge, with large commercial markets in cities in countries across parts of Asia and beyond. Some idea of the scale and impact of the trade is provided by the white-rumped shama. This small forest bird with its beautiful melodic songs used to be found in tropical forests across South and Southeast Asia.

The species is especially vulnerable to being captured because whole sub-populations can be lured in using recordings of the birds’ songs, to which wild birds call back and fly in to investigate the stranger’s calls. From 2009 to 2022, at least 615 enforcement seizures were made, involving more than 32,000 birds. In Southeast Asia, local extinctions have occurred in many regions as a direct result of trapping for the cage bird trade.

Such depletions have a knock-on effect on other species. As the white-rumped shama is becoming more difficult for trappers to find, their attention is now turning to the related magpie robin. Once a common garden bird, it is becoming increasingly rare and urban gardens increasingly silent.

Straw-headed bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus), Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, Singapore. Photo by Flickr user NatureAtYourBackyard. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Even more threatened by trade for its glorious bubbling songs is the straw-headed bulbul, which the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) now lists as Critically Endangered. Once widespread across Southeast Asia, the species has declined by more than 80 percent over the last 15 years.

It is believed to have been extirpated from Myanmar and Thailand, as well as parts of Indonesia and Malaysia where it is now almost wholly confined to protected areas, and even gone from many of those. This is almost solely due to trapping for the cage bird trade. Even though it can be bred in captivity, wild-caught birds are often considered superior singers so are still sought after.

The species lives in riverine areas that tend to be highly accessible, making the bird especially vulnerable. Trapping for trade has reduced the global wild population to fewer than 1,700 mature individuals, with the only single known viable population being in Singapore. The result is that the species is one step away from extinction.

“Trapping for trade in the straw-headed bulbul has reduced the wild population to fewer than 1,700 mature individuals, with the only known viable population in Singapore.”

Because of the concern for the decline of these two species, parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will be asked to vote on proposals to increase protection for both at its 19th Conference of the Parties this week in Panama.

If they are passed, all international trade for the white-rumped shama would be regulated and monitored to ensure that it does not threaten wild populations. All international commercial trade in the straw-headed bulbul would be prohibited.

Throughout Southeast Asia especially, the songbird trade has rendered forests increasingly silent, with whole cities devoid of wild birds and their songs. It is ironic that, if the trapping were to stop and wild birds no longer occupied people’s living rooms and balconies, residents of towns and cities would be able to enjoy even more abundant, diverse, and melodious songs of wild birds singing freely in parks and gardens, and forests would still ring out with a vibrant avian chorus.

Dr. Elizabeth L. Bennett is Vice President of Species Conservation at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).

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