People Are Killing Thousands Of Wild Songbirds For The Pet Trade

"What I saw there was worse than I'd anticipated."

Songbirds all across the wild jungles of Indonesia are so loved by locals, there are bird song competitions, where people try their best to sound like the colorful little birds.

But the love for these songbirds is literally killing them.

Adam Miller/Planet Indonesia

Captured in the wild so that they can be kept as pets, songbirds are disappearing from Indonesia forests. Last year, 19 species of Indonesian songbirds were marked as vulnerable or endangered because of the domestic trade.

The rufous-fronted Laughingthrush, for example, went from being listed as "near threatened" to "critically endangered" in just four years. People estimate that there are fewer than 250 of these birds left in the whole world - and one was spotted in a cage at a market in June 2015. Even Indonesia's national bird, the Javan hawk-eagle, is threatened with extinction because of the pet trade - only an estimated 600 are left.

Yellow-crested cockatoos, often kept as pets in Indonesia, stuffed in plastic bottles in Surabaya to be smuggled | Petrus Riski/Mongabay

Even though most of these songbirds are found nowhere else in the world, hundreds of thousands of birds are plucked out of the wild every year all across the islands of Indonesia, but especially on the island of Java. They're stuffed in cramped cages and sold at 80 to 100 bird markets on the island or even by the side of the road. Many birds die during capture and while being smuggled to the markets. Selling wild birds is technically illegal, but the law lacks enforcement, and these open-air markets operate in plain view and are even listed as tourist destinations.

Cages full of birds at the Jatinegara bird market in East Jakarta | Harry Pearl/Mongabay

"What I saw there was worse than I'd anticipated," Eleanor Paish, a zoologist and filmmaker based in the UK, said of her visit to the markets. "I had the classic knee-jerk reaction any animal lover would have had: I completely condemned everyone involved in the trade."

Adam Miller/Planet Indonesia

But Paish realized that rather than getting angry she needed to understand what gave the trade such a stronghold, even as bird populations are plummeting. She discovered that the domestic bird trade is deeply rooted in a centuries-old tradition of keeping birds, which means that the survival of these species depends on changing the minds of locals so they can see the birds as worth more in the wild than in cages.

Adam Miller/Planet Indonesia

That's why Paish is starting a campaign to make an educational documentary to show to the local communities, explaining the real threats the domestic trade poses for the very existence of these birds.

Eleanor Paish

"She wants to help stop the open sale of Indonesia's wild birds, and if she manages to change the behavior of just one poacher through her outreach, it could save the life of literally thousands of birds and maybe even entire species from disappearing forever," Theodore Squires, a bird researcher at Hokkaido University in Japan who is helping Paish with the project, told The Dodo. "People across the main island of Java prize the birds for their music, but are usually unaware that their pets are causing the forests to become silent."

Because of the bird trade, there are fewer than 250 Rufous-fronted Laughingthrushes left in the world. | Cikananga Wildlife Center

"As a wildlife researcher, every day I ask myself how I can translate my work into real impacts and policy change," Squires added. "[This] project ... can make an immediate difference."

Eleanor Paish
Nick Hall

To help save Indonesian songbirds from extinction, you can contribute to the campaign.