Focus Area
  • People
  • Places
  • Policy
  • Populations
  • South East Asia
Partners and collaborators

Bringing bird song back

All over Indonesia, forests are falling silent. The songbirds that once thrived there are threatened with extinction. We’re facing a crisis, as a result of rare birds being captured and taken from their forest homes to be sold on markets as part of the illegal wildlife trade.

Millions of birds are trapped from the wild for a number of reasons, but many species, particularly passerines or songbirds, are in high demand. Caged birds are sought after to be used in bird singing competitions, and bird keeping is a tradition deeply embedded in Indonesian culture which has, sadly, had a devastating impact on many species of Asian songbirds. This illegal trade is estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars to the Indonesian economy.


It is now a fight against time for many songbird species, including the critically endangered Javan green magpie which experts say are on the ‘brink of extinction’.


Generating successful conservation outcomes requires a deep understanding of an animal species. This project is a great example of a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach to preventing the extinction of some of Indonesia’s most threatened bird species, ensuring their long term survival. Our team of curators, veterinarians, scientists and educators, are working with conservation partners and scholars from around the world, to help develop the best conservation action plans to help save Asian songbirds.

Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) PhD student, Harry Marshall, led a team that surveyed 3000 households across the island of Java. This social science research found that the proportion of bird-keeping households had increased over the past decade, and that a third of Java’s 36 million households, now keep birds. This insight really helps us to understand the nature of the threat, and tackle it head on, enabling our team of conservationists to target the most important communities with awareness and education projects, to ultimately implement solutions.

To help combat the crisis, we’ve focused our work on the highly threatened Javan green magpie, Sumatran laughingthrush, black-winged myna and the Bali myna. For these species, a big part of their future relies on conservation breeding, with numbers in the wild critically low. This is why additional assurance populations have been established in zoos as part of European Endangered Species programmes (EEPs) – Chester Zoo leads these programmes for Javan green magpie and Sumatran laughingthrush.

We’re working alongside long-term partners Cikananga Conservation Breeding Centre (CCBC), based in West Java, to establish genetically viable populations of these birds and develop long term strategies for their survival and reintroduction in the wild. Chester Zoo’s Curator of Birds, Andrew Owen, and Head of Veterinary Services, Javier Lopez, have provided technical support to CCBC, for over a decade, sharing expert advice on husbandry and veterinary best practice. As well as supporting to build capacity and the infrastructure to do this successfully in-situ, we’re working towards reintroductions into secure landscapes across the island of Java.


In addition to the valuable technical support we provide CCBC, Chester Zoo has been the main funder for the organisation, ensuring core funds are available for CCBC’s dedicated staff to carry out their vital work – as well as providing funds to build new facilities, such as the construction of two new large aviary blocks.

However, before any reintroductions to the wild can be fulfilled, it is important to fully understand the wild status of a species and the threats within its wild landscape. The ecological monitoring research of Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar and MMU PhD student, Tom Squires, (who is studying Bali myna and black-winged myna) provides an understanding of these species’ patterns of distribution and their ecological requirements. This research helps us to identify ways we can encourage their conservation in the wild, inform future plans and monitor the success.

As well as understanding what landscapes are viable and secure, knowledge of a species’ behaviour is also crucial to knowing whether reintroducing them to the wild, will be a success. Chester Zoo Conservation Scholar and University of Manchester PhD student, Becky Lewis and Chester Zoo Behaviour Scientist, Dr Leah Williams, have been studying the importance of avian vocalisations for conservation, as this can have a major impact on reintroduction success and conservation breeding efforts. Avian vocalisations not only vary between species, but also between populations of the same species, much like how human language differs across the globe, and have an impact on a species’ survival.

Using bio-acoustic technology to investigate the differences in song between wild and zoo Java sparrows, Becky’s research is now looking at understanding the factors affecting bird accents, the steps we can take to reduce these conservation challenges and create strategies to mitigate any problems.


Community awareness and education outreach projects on the ground in South East Asia, are also vital to the long term success of the ongoing research and breeding work. Without these projects, the populations that are reintroduced to the wild are at risk of being trapped by people for the caged bird trade. To alleviate this risk, we are working with our field partners in Java to create an education programme for local communities and schools that surround potential reintroduction sites. The aim of this, is to highlight the importance and benefits of the birds, inspire communities and the next generation, to act as guardians for the endangered bird species.

Another important component of the project is working together with other members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group. This diverse group of bird conservation experts have joined forces to highlight and tackle the threats facing Asian songbirds. Andrew Owen is one of the Vice Chairs of the group, which is the first multidisciplinary specialist group of its kind, dedicated to preventing the imminent extinction of songbirds threatened by the illegal bird trade. This group is working towards a longer term, sustainable solution to change policy in Indonesia.

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