Hundreds of songbird contests take place across Indonesia every year. The judges adjudicate the complexity and range of their melodies, as well as their stamina and their posture as they flit around their cages. Owning a champion bird is not just a matter of pride. Winners receive televisions, motorcycles, cars and cash prizes of hundreds of thousands of dollars……the owners, I assume, not the birds? As an example, Mr. Imam’s stone magpie has racked up scores of trophies over the past four years and has earned his owner around $1,000.
The people of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island, have kept songbirds, a symbol of Javanese knighthood, for centuries. However, contests started to become common in the 1980’s and 90’s when enthusiasts started replacing imported Zebra Doves, whose vocalizations are fixed, with native Passerines, which can be trained. This opened up competitions to anyone with the time and patience to train their birds. Ownership of songbirds in Java has doubled over the past decade.
Unfortunately, this popularity has meant that some areas of the island have seen their Passerine populations dwindle to almost zero, as more and more people enter the “sport”. Apparently, wild Passerine songbirds are considered to have superior vocal cords to their domestic counterparts. Breeders can’t keep up with the demand, and the depletion of forest populations has made more than a dozen species of Passerines in danger of extinction.
There are between 66 million and 84 million birds in captivity on Java. Nearly a third of all households keep them, according to a survey in 2018.
This passion for Passerines, and their revenue-producing potential, has created an international market for the birds. Traders are now ransacking Malaysia and Thailand looking for populations of Passerines to deliver to their Indonesian clients. As many as one million birds were smuggled out of the forest of Sumatra, another Indonesian island, in 2019, according to one estimate.
The Indonesian Government is aware of the problem and has added hundreds of birds, including songbirds, to their list of protected species. This means, on paper, that all trade in these species is prohibited. However, as with most government conservation efforts in this arena, there are many loopholes, and patchy enforcement.
What sounds like a harmless and enjoyable activity, songbird contests, has turned into yet another example of commercial exploitation which contains the seeds of its own demise. That wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t also contain the seeds of the demise of songbirds in South-east Asia.
If I may generalize, this is yet another example of human myopic and destructive behavior.
Will we ever learn? Unfortunately, I doubt it.