One Million Caged, None in the Wild: Free the Javanese Starling

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This is the story of the critically endangered Javanese starling Gracupica jalla – his troubled present but also his surprisingly promising future – in a single photograph. Crammed into five small cages, 42 individuals are presented for sale in an Indonesian village. Representatives of the relentless pet trade that has devastated populations of many species of Indonesian birds, the imprisoned assemblage far exceeds any surviving wild contingent. The Javan Pied Starling no longer flies freely – but a new initiative from BirdLife International and other organizations seeks to change all that.

With no recent records of unequivocally wild starlings, this Indonesian endemic may already be extinct in the wild. In captivity, however, it is anything but. In 2019, researchers revealed the scale of the Asian songbird crisis, estimating that 36 million Javanese households had 66 to 84 million caged birds – more birds, shockingly, than left in the declining forests of Java. A surprising 1.14 million were Javanese starlings.

“The situation is extraordinary – unique in bird conservation,” said Dr Nigel Collar, BirdLife International Leventis member in conservation biology. “Here is a bird that is probably extinct in the wild but that you can find quite easily in bird shops and homes. There is no other case like this.

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the official scientific description of Javan Pied Starling. For much of the Intermediate Period, however, it was considered a subspecies of the Asian Pied Starling. Gracupica versus – and therefore not subject to the evaluation of the IUCN Red List. In 2016, Nigel Collar and Josep del Hoyo of Lynx Edicions applied new taxonomic criteria that approved the original status of a full species.

With some bird watchers fearing that wild populations of the Java Starling have already disappeared, it has been catapulted onto the radar of environmentalists. BirdLife has declared the species Critically Endangered in a major uplisting of Asian songbirds. “The impacts of the wild harvest [of songbirds] are now clearly visible, ”says David Jeggo, chair of the Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (ASTSG). The race was on to save this songbird with the orange face and magpie.

Quickly understanding the starling has become essential. Research by Collar and ornithological consultant Bas van Balen, published earlier this year, exposed the starling’s terrifying act of extinction, which had taken place entirely unnoticed. “Fifty to one hundred years ago,” explains van Balen, “the Java starling was one of the most common birds of Java farmland. Now, no wild bird is known to survive – just the occasional escapee. “

The scale of the population collapse is shocking. At the turn of the last century, the Javan Pied Starling was said to have been “among the most remarkable residents of the cultivated lands of Java … impossible to ignore”. It thrived on the growing expanses of farmland that followed the tide of deforestation, probing the soil and pastures for terrestrial invertebrates such as earthworms. It was also usual in urban areas, being considered one of Jakarta’s most common birds in the 1930s – and bold enough to enter kitchens for leftover food.

Until the 1960s, this attractive starling remained widespread in much of Java, but its decline, Collar says, “was probably slow enough to go unnoticed.” By 1990, starlings were streaming over Bali and by 1994 had disappeared from Sumatra (where they may have spread naturally as a result of agricultural expansion rather than escaping from captivity). “Shortly before the turn of this century,” Collar concludes, “the species suddenly and completely disappeared” from its entire range. He suspects that the few records since 2000 probably relate exclusively to caged birds.

A typical competition setup - Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club, Singapore © VBN / Nature in Stock

Rooted in culture

“Keeping birds is part of Javanese culture. This pragmatic opening of an article on the keeping of caged birds by Indonesian social anthropologists Khoirul Mafaja and Fadly Husain demonstrates the cultural challenge facing environmentalists seeking to resolve the Asian songbird crisis. Keeping pet birds such as the Javan Pied Starling is a long established Indonesian pastime with deep roots – like owning cats and dogs in the west.

Recently, bird breeding has also become big business. One manifestation of this commercial dimension, affecting many passerines – although not Javan Pied Starling – is the songbird competitions (known as kicau mania) which are now commonplace, with massive cash prizes funding chains. supply connecting forest poachers, traders, vendors and landowners.

Trapping for the pet trade was one of the main causes of the Javan Pied Starling’s collapse. In 1953, it would have become one of the most popular caged birds in Java. But although islanders’ thirst for songbirds has dramatically reduced populations of many Indonesian species, “no species in trade has experienced such a sharp decline,” Collar explains. The fearlessness of the birds and their conspicuous nests, making the trappers’ job simple, must have played a big part in this unprecedented population collapse.

But was there anything else? Unlike nearly all of the 44 species that ASTSG considers to be heavily impacted by the songbird trade, the Java Magpie Starling’s preference for open country habitats means it has not suffered from deforestation. Instead, the starling suffered another problem: the application of agricultural chemicals largely eradicated its prey.

From 1979 to 1998, the use of pesticides in Indonesia increased tenfold. In 2017, over 80% of shallot growers in a former Javan Pied Starling stronghold reported complete loss of earthworm biomass from their soils. “Pesticides are believed to have significantly depleted the starling’s topsoil food resources,” says Simon Bruslund (Marlow Birdpark and ASTSG member).

One of four Javan Pied Starlings in central Jakarta in 2011 (probably escapees) © B Emmanuel & K Yordan

A chance for freedom

Saving a species that is likely extinct in the wild will be even more complicated than the already high ambitions of BirdLife and Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) to curb the illegal, unregulated and unsustainable trade in birds. In March, the findings of van Balen and Collar galvanized an emergency meeting of the ASTSG, which broadly agreed to capitalize on the unprecedented windfall of a million captive Javanese starlings by assembling a population for the breeding of conservation and possible reintroduction. From the clutches of defeat, there now appears a tangible – and rather inspiring – prospect of achieving victory.

The conservation breeding project is being led by Prigen Conservation Breeding Ark, whose curator of birds, Jochen Menner, hopes “many well-respected institutions will join forces to create a large and viable ex situ starling population.” Bruslund observes that most of the participants will be from Indonesian zoos. The feedback to date has been encouraging, with a very strong willingness to cooperate. Menner is encouraged by having the “luxury of numbers” of captive starlings – which is not usually the case when working with critically endangered species. He believes it is imperative that the first controlled semi-wild releases begin very soon.

The approach is not without its problems. Menner warns that captive populations contain “mutant plumages and possibly even hybrids, so the acquisition of genetically pure birds will be a problem.” In addition, there is no point in releasing captive birds into the wild if agricultural chemicals rob them of a food supply or if they quickly become targets of trappers.

As a result, the ASTSG aspires to create what Anuj Jain (BirdLife Asia’s Bird Trade Coordinator and ASTSG Vice President of Community Engagement) calls “safe havens” – sites where birds are released. will not encounter chemical constraints on their food supply or entrapment. One likely release site is the 280,000 hectare UNESCO Ciletuh-Pelabuhan Ratu Geopark in West Java.

“Safe refuges will only work if communities are fully engaged and supportive,” says Jain, citing the experience of developing village resource management agreements in Indonesia, “where communities manage forest resources, basins slopes or key species in a sustainable way in exchange for help to improve livelihoods ”. Jain also wants to explore the use of Javan Pied Starling as a flagship product in pesticide-free agriculture: “Maybe one day we will have ‘Javanese Starling Rice’, without pesticides, where communities are encouraged and where Javans are Foot Starlings roam freely. “


Burung Indonesia’s work to combat the songbird trade is supported by the March Conservation Fund and Vogelbescherming Nederland (BirdLife Partner).

If you would like to help us continue this important work, you can donate to our appeal here.

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