Finding a way to save songbirds

The trapping of beautiful songbirds in Indonesia is driving many species to the edge of extinction. Together with our field partners, other zoos and organisations around the world, we are determined to save these birds from disappearing forever.

Chester Zoo’s curator of birds, Andrew Owen, attended the Asian Songbird Crisis Summit earlier this year along with 55 other participants from all different areas of the conservation community. Andrew tells us more about the summit and his trip to Indonesia below.

“The Asian Songbird Crisis Summit brings together bird experts from all over – from zoo curators and keepers, leaders in bird taxonomy and conservation, experts in field ornithology, tropical bird ecology, avian genetics and wildlife trade. All are there for one reason: to help find ways to protect and conserve South East Asia’s songbirds.

“Most notably, those that are being driven to extinction by the unrelenting cage bird trade in Indonesia. The first Songbird Crisis Summit was held back in September 2015; where a list of 30 of the most highly threatened species was compiled. The group also identified the most urgent needs for each species, with a focus on the importance of establishing conservation breeding programmes for all the priority species before it’s too late. More genetic research is needed to provide guidance to these programmes as well as education, community engagement and communication which are also essential if there’s going to be any hope of reintroducing these birds back into the wild in the future.

Sunda laughing thrush in cage on bird market, songbirds

Joining forces

“The next steps are to form an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group to ensure specialist expertise from around the world work closely together to work towards finding a solution to the problem. This will be a huge undertaking that requires skill, dedication and hard work for many of the participants, but is a positive step in the right direction to ensure we find a solution to the songbird crisis.

“On top of our own Sing for Songbirds campaign, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) will also be running a campaign that will focus solely on birds and many zoos around Europe will get involved, whether it’s education, awareness or fundraising.

“Perhaps the single most important thing to come out of the summit was the production of the priority bird list which was later presented to the Indonesian Minister for the Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar; when I and a number of the group attended a meeting with her in Jakarta.

Orange spotted bulbuls, songbirds

“Indonesia is currently preparing to update its list of protected species and we were pleased to be able to present our priority list and to discuss the burning issues that Indonesian songbirds face. I was able to talk about the important conservation work we at Chester are doing with our conservation partners Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre – breeding some of the rarest species on the planet, setting up breeding programmes in Europe and planning a reintroduction programme for black-winged starlings (myna).

“During my trip to Indonesia, I was joined by Professor’s Nigel Collar from BirdLife International and Stuart Marsden from Manchester Metropolitan University along with two Chester Zoo conservation scholars, Tom and Harry, who are studying black-winged myna ecology and the culture of Indonesian bird keeping respectively.

white eyes in cage on bird market in Java, songbirds

“We visited Maura Angke, a filthy, rubbish-strewn area of mangrove on the edge of Jakarta. This is one of only two sites where the black-winged myna is known to survive in the wild, but unfortunately we didn’t see any birds during our visit and left with nothing more than muddy boots and mosquito bites!

“I then travelled onto East Java where I visited Alas Purwo National Park – a really nice park that still has a lot of lowland forest and open areas of grassland. These grasslands are very important for large ungulates, especially banteng, and in turn the banteng are really important for the grey-rumped myna’s which co-exist with them, riding on their backs, feeding on ticks and insects and on the grasshoppers and other bugs that the banteng disturb as they walk.

gery backed starling / myna on banteng
Grey-backed myna on the back of a banteng

“Alas Purwo was meant to be one of only two remaining strongholds for this critically endangered songbird, but despite seeing good numbers of banteng, we only saw two grey-rumped myna’s. It was very disappointing and a possible sign that bird trapping is going on even in protected areas! Despite the species not being as sought after as the black-winged myna, the bird is still worth a lot of money to locals.

“Better luck was had when I visited the other known site for this species, Baluran National Park. I once again teamed up with Nigel, Stu, Tom and Harry and we were joined by Yanthi from Burung Indonesia, the Indonesian BirdLife partner. We spent three days in Baluran assessing habitat and surveying for birds. Here we counted 27 myna’s in one flock which was great to see, this time foraging with herds of rusa deer and feral water buffalo!

“Tom was able to start developing the monitoring techniques he will use for his studies and Stu and I observed a single bird carrying insects in its beak – clearly a sign it was part of a pair rearing chicks nearby, which was very positive indeed.

grey backed starling / myna, songbirds
Grey-backed myna in flight

“I also spent some time with our project partners, the Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre. Here I spent several days helping with and evaluating the conservation breeding work being done by our partners, as well as spending time with Arfah, the field biologist, who is working hard evaluating the habitat in the surrounding countryside in preparation for a future black-winged myna reintroduction.

“The new state of the art breeding aviary, part-funded by Chester Zoo, built last year from top quality steel and strong mesh look great and are already bearing fruit – the first Javan green magpies hatched chicks while I was there, which was wonderful news. These chicks have since fledged and are doing well.

“On my last day before flying home, I was brought down to earth with a big bump when I visited Pramuka bird market in Jakarta. This is the biggest bird market in the world and although I have been there several times before, I never fail to be shocked at the volume of birds being traded, living and dying in vast numbers in atrocious conditions. Thousands upon thousands of birds are traded through this nightmarish place with complete disregard for their health or well-being.

If they die, they are simply replaced with more birds taken from the wild, but for how much longer? This illegal trafficking is driving many species to the brink of extinction and this is why I and so many other dedicated conservationists get up in the morning.

Andrew Owen, curator of birds

“We want to do everything we can to stop this trade and bring back the bird song that is fast disappearing from Indonesia’s wonderful wild places”

We have to work together – that’s why we need your help too. Your support can make a big difference to saving precious songbirds from extinction.