Songbirds in Indonesia are at risk of extinction because of a craze for singing contests that has led to more of them being kept in captivity.

Research by British scientists on Java, the most densely populated of the main Indonesian islands, warns of an “Asian songbird crisis” in which demand for birds as pets and competitive singers is putting species at risk.

A paper in the journal Biological Conservation suggests that one-third of Java’s 36 million households keep birds and that the total in captivity could be as high as 75 million. Demand is encouraging international smuggling, fuelled by the love of the “kicau” — bird singing contests.

“The trade in songbirds is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars to the Indonesian economy,” the researcher Harry Marshall, of Manchester Metropolitan University, said. 

“The removal of birds from the forest on such a scale may be damaging, not only causing bird extinctions but threatening the ecosystem services they provide such as pollination.”

One of the most prized species is the white-rumped shama, three million of which are held in captivity, with few left in the wild.

white rumped shama

Last year, several Indonesians were caught in Malaysia smuggling hundreds of birds from Vietnam. They drowned many of them by throwing their cages off their boat rather than surrender them to the authorities.

Songbirds have long been kept as family pets in southeast Asia, but the rise of singing competitions, on which people place bets, has added to the demand for smuggled wild birds.

Wild birds are most prized because they are said to sing more strongly and harmoniously.

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