Monday, 14 July 2008

A bird in a cage puts all Java in a craze

By Paul Jepson

When was the last time you really listened to a bird sing? For many British bird-watchers bird song is simply a tool to identification and it is perhaps only whilst relaxing in the garden or during a dawn chorus event that most of us stop to really listen. In the cities of Java the massive popularity of birds revolves arounds their song, and the beautiful song of one particular thrush arouses such passion amongst bird enthusiasts that the best singers exchange hands for upwards of £15,000.

An appreciation of birds is deeply rooted in Indonesian culture but if you live in a city on the densely populated tropical island of Java our mode of bird-watching is not really an option: there are no accessible reserves, green space is rare, the traffic jams are awful, it's sweltering hot, pours with rain most afternoons, and what birds there are suffer heavy persecution. Given these conditions is hardly surprising that Indonesians love their cage-birds. A recent survey found that one-in-five urban households keep a bird and when asked why, most respondents chose the answer ‘to remind me of my village’. Amongst urban bird keepers the pride and satisfaction that villagers traditionally take from rearing animals is finding a new and cosmopolitan expression in the form of songbird contests.

Songbird contests take place every weekend in city parks. These events are something of a morph between a horse race, dog show, football match and cockfight. The three national song contests attract 4000 or more participants and spectators and 800 competing birds. The vast majority of the birds are wild caught and from five local species with exceptional song repertoires: orange-headed thrush, long-tailed shrike, white-rumped shama, chestnut-headed thrush and leafbirds. At the (ex-president) ‘Gus Dur’ songcontest held in Jakarta in April there were 10 separate orange headed thrush ‘classes’ each attracting 30 to 40 bird entrants with the top ‘mega star’ class carrying an entry fee of £12 and winning prize of £1000. Not insignificant amounts when the average monthly income is £45!

Readers who have birded in Asia will be familiar with orange-headed thrush. It's a quality forest bird that requires patience and skill to see well. It is a scarce bird throughout its wide range which covers India, Indochina and southeast Asia. Except on Java where, prior to its popularity as a cage-bird, it was quite common breeding in plantations as well as forest. The relative abundance of an ace songster helped fuel the hobby of training and competing songbirds.

Competing songbirds is a relatively new hobby which draws its inspiration from the traditional Javanese practice of competing zebra doves. However, because song quality of zebra doves is determined by genetics, this hobby came to be dominated by champion breeders and the people who could afford their birds. In the mid-1970s a group of bird connoisseurs amongst the Jakarta rich started competing Chinese laughing thrushes - a fashionable new import to Java at the time - and to add spice to their sport they wagered fabulous prizes. Initially these contests were beyond the means of ordinary citizens but word of their existence got around and it wasn't long before enterprising villagers started bringing orange-headed thrushes to town with the message ‘why pay £40 for a Chinese import when our local bird is a superior songster and we’ll sell one for £2?’ (1970s prices).

And they were right. As a competitive songster the orange-headed thrush has it all. It’s a real looker that boasts a beautifully varied song and the ability to incorporate song-phrases from other species. It has ‘attitude’ and the stamina (with training) to sing non-stop for 25 to 40 minutes in close proximity with 20 or more other dominant males and as a bonus it postures when it sings. More correctly it goes into a drunken-looking stupor – wings and head drooped, swaying on the perch. Many birds are named after their distinctive singing posture -‘Satellite’, ‘Antenna’ and so forth.

These attributes of orange-headed thrush give it enormous popular appeal and make for exciting judging. In contrast to the staid zebra dove contests of old, the new songbird contests are dynamic, uncertain and uproarious. A new phrase in a song repertoire or a distinctive posture might capture the favour of the judges. This means lots to talk about and it opens the field to anyone with a talent for training birds and spotting a potential star.

There are about 60,000 songbird hobbyists in Java who identify themselves either with a bird club or as a ‘single fighter’ (they use the English words). A bird club Java-style is a network of hobbyists who compete against each other to train and test their birds and then compete as a team at city, provincial or national level song contests. Like a footballer, the value of an orange headed thrush jumps significantly as it proves itself at different levels of competition. A newly caught bird currently sells for around £25. Once it has shown it can compete at a local contest its value will be £90-100. If it then becomes a ‘prospect’ by, for example, coming in the top three at song contests in two or more provinces its value will increase to £1500, and so on upwards to the current record ‘transfer fee’ of £18,000.

At the core of bird clubs are networks of entrepreneurially-minded men who enjoy speculating on the value gains they can accrue using their ‘ear for a prospect’ and skill at training. Bird clubs usually comprises sub-groups of hobbyists ‘playing’ at different value levels relating to their financial means and attitude to risk. At the apex is a ‘big boss’ who will pay upwards of £10,000 for outstanding birds and lead the club in a collective enterprises of sourcing and scouting prospects, training winners and acquiring established champions. Success brings fame and prestige to the club and its members.

Although money is central to the hobby it would be wrong to surmise that most hobbyists are motivated solely by the promise of financial rewards. When asked about the appeal of the hobby they describe the satisfaction they feel when a bird they've trained successfully competes, the sense of fraternity that comes with participating as well as the opportunity to be ‘someone’, to be known, talked about and counselled on bird-related matters. Some hobbyists have a more mystical bent and talk about the experience of connecting with another life-form.

Many hobbyists comment on the fact that participating in song-contests brings people from all social strata and ethnicities into contact with networks of entrepreneurs that link city with village and city with city. It is telling that the songbird hobby took off during the Asian economic crisis of 1997 to 1998 when many men were made redundant and the expectation of employers providing a job for life was challenged. As well as building relationships with successful entrepreneurs, the hobby itself provides numerous small businesses opportunities, for example, in the production of cages and equipment, as a buyer and seller of ‘prospects’, as a personal songbird trainer (known as a ‘jockey’) and in bird breeding . The bird keeping sector contribute £42 million to the economy is of the six largest cities on Java and Bali which represents about a quarter of the urban population. Of this figure about 14 million is spent on birds, 9 million on cages, 7 million on life food, and £5.5 million on travel and entrance fees to song-contests!

The way of enjoying birds on Java clearly contributes important social and economic benefits to the contemporary urban culture. Unfortunately it also impacts negatively on the wild populations of the most popular species. Today over 120,000 orange-headed thrushes are kept in the six cities surveyed and all have been taken from the wild in the last six years. The editor of the weekly bird-keeping tabloid newspaper, believes there has been a process of rolling local extinctions across Java where thrushes in one forest block after another have been trapped out. Bird-trapping is a common weekend hobby for men living in the sprawling towns and villages close to forest areas. The appeal is probably akin to that of fishing: bait an area, set a trap, wait and reflect, and then enjoy the thrill of the catch. It makes for a nice camping weekend with the lads, which is all the easier to justify to the wife if it results in a few birds to sell!

Specialists in the sourcing of these thrushes have now found a new and potentially sustainable supply from Bali where the owners of Salak (lizard fruit) plantations are harvesting two-day old chicks from nests on their estates. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the supply may be 4,000 chicks per season. However, the worry is that as orange-headed thrush becomes a must have bird for the fashion-conscious middle classes, it will have no chance to recover on Java and a market will grow the vulnerable and similar looking species of thrush that are endemic to the smaller islands east of Bali.

In response a network of like-minded individuals is forming to instil a stronger conservation ethos within the hobby. Their vision is to bring about a switch from wild- caught to captive bred songbirds on the hobby, to dissuade citizens with a casual interest from keeping birds and encourage those who really want one to by a canary, lovebird or zebra dove which are already bred in huge numbers. The first tasks of this network, which initially included scholars, businessmen and conservation professionals was to conduct the research on which this article is based. The network has subsequently expanded to include journalists and consultants and represents the hobbyists, breeder and conservation perspectives. A campaign to encourage bird-keepers to buy only captive-bred birds is getting underway and schemes to promote and certify bird-breeding are being developed. The changes sought will not happen over-night and the people involved are taking the long term view. The fact that an appreciation of birds is so widespread and deeply embedded in the urban culture of Java and Bali is something to celebrate. Introducing conservation regulations heavy-handily could over-time marginalise this love of birds or more likely undermine the conservationist cause. The goal is to introduce a conservation ethos to the songbird hobby whilst retaining a culturally distinct way of enjoy and relating to birds.

Dr Paul Jepson is Course Director of the MSc. in Nature, Society and Environmental Policy at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment and was Principal Invesitgator on the Darwin Initiative Project “A market-based conservation response to domestic bird-trade in Indonesia’ from which this brief originates. His research specializes in various aspects of conservation governance and he was previously head of the Birdlife International-Indonesia Programme (1991-1997)

© Paul Jepson, paul.jepson@ouce.ox.ac.uk, 27 June 2007

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