More Than 9,000 Stolen Songbirds Have Been Saved In Just 10 Days

"I often heard birds singing in the yard of our houses ... Now even our forests are silent.”

The songbirds should have been flying freely in the forest, foraging for food and calling to each other with their melodic trills. But instead, they were being transported to markets in tiny, filthy cages — all for the sake of people wanting them to sing inside their homes.

In the course of 10 days, Indonesian police and quarantine officials intercepted three shipments of wild birds, who’d been captured in Sumatra and transported to Java, Indonesia.

Bird cages in back of truck
Officials seized cages of wild birds being driven in the back of a truck. | FLIGHT

On November 17, they confiscated over 6,000 birds, including songbirds, sunbirds, tailorbirds, prinias, leafbirds, bulbuls and nuthatches, who were being carried in a truck. Six days later, 1,536 caged birds were seized from the back of a bus, and four days after that, an additional 2,140 birds were rescued from a private car.

This adds up to more than 9,600 birds.

Birds being driven in bus
Trafficked birds were also found in the storage compartment of a bus. | FLIGHT

“I think this is the biggest bird seizure that has ever happened in a period of 10 days,” Marison Guciano, executive director of FLIGHT: Protecting Indonesia's Birds, told The Dodo. “This shows great pressure for Sumatran birds to supply markets in Java.”

Wild birds used to be plentiful in Java. In fact, Guciano, who grew up in Java, remembers hearing their sweet calls throughout his childhood.

Officials with confiscated birds
Officials with some of the birds who were seized last month | FLIGHT

“When I was little, I often heard birds singing in the yard of our houses,” Guciano said. “Not anymore. Now even our forests are silent.”

Wild birds inside cages
Some of the confiscated birds at a local quarantine office in Java | FLIGHT

Songbirds and other wild birds are now so rare in Java that traffickers have to go to Sumatra — a completely different island of Indonesia — to catch them. Then the birds are transported to Java, where it’s a cultural tradition to keep them as pets, Guciano explained.

Wild birds inside cages

“Millions of people keep birds as pets so they can hear them sing,” Guciano said. “It is a big market.”

But the pet trade is putting substantial pressure on wild populations, and pushing many wild birds towards extinction. For instance, 19 species of Indonesian songbirds are already marked as vulnerable or endangered because of the domestic trade.

Woman with cages of confiscated birds

“The taking of songbirds from the wild in Indonesia is out of control,” Guciano said. “Thousands of birds are smuggled in small boxes, and travel, at times, hundreds of kilometers to reach the bird markets.”

The markets themselves are not a pleasant destination for the birds.

Dead birds lying on newspaper
Many trafficked birds don't survive the transport process. | FLIGHT

“These markets are ... a place where unspeakable cruelty occurs,” Guciano said. “Birds and other animals are chained and locked in small and dirty cages, with little access to food and water.”

Cages of wild birds
Wild birds being sold at markets in Java, Indonesia | FLIGHT

Surprisingly, many wild birds are not protected under Indonesian law. However, anyone who wants to capture and sell them needs a special permit — and most traffickers operate without permits, which makes their activities illegal. Also, if they’re caught transporting any birds that are protected under Indonesian law, such as greater green leafbirds, this could get them into bigger trouble.

Basket of crying birds
A basket of crying birds at a market in Java | FLIGHT

In general, traffickers don’t treat their captured birds very well.

“When they are crammed into small boxes, they are seldom supplied with food and water and they are stressed,” Guciano said. “Many birds don't want to eat because they find it overwhelming being crammed into small spaces. Many do not survive.”

Birds inside pipes

But survival isn’t a top concern for many traffickers, Guciano explained.

“Even though many birds die, traders still profit,” Guciano said. “They buy a bird from a hunter for half a dollar, then sell it for $5.”

Surviving birds inside a cage
Some of the wild birds survived and will be released back into the wild. | FLIGHT

Not surprisingly, many birds died from the three seized shipments — but there were also many survivors who will get to return to the forest.

“All birds who survive are released after they undergo a health check,” Guciano said. “If we hold them any longer, more will die. We release them whilst they are still relatively ‘fresh’ from wild so they will not need to be rehabilitated.”

To help protect songbirds and other wild birds in Indonesia, you can make a donation to FLIGHT.