Showy Songbirds Are at Risk of Extinction

Attractive birds are much more likely to be traded as pets.

Fairy Pitta bird
Fairy pitta.

Zhikai Liao

Standing out in the crowd isn’t necessarily a good thing … particularly when you’re a striking songbird.

Bright, unusually colored birds are at greater risk of extinction and are more likely to be captured and sold as pets, a new study finds.

Researchers also were able to predict about 500 more bird species could be threatened by the pet trade because of their attractive and desirable coloring.

“Aesthetic value is an important part of how people value nature. However, there is potential for conflict when what motivates some people to protect certain species is the same thing that makes other people want to own them,” study author Rebecca Senior, a conservation biologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom, tells Treehugger.

“Songbirds (passerines) are highly sought after in the pet trade, particularly for their beautiful songs. However, songbirds can also be remarkably colorful—a highly desirable trait in other commonly traded species, such as parrots.”

Senior and her colleagues used global databases of songbird plumage color, their geographic range, extinction risk, and how common they were in the pet trade.

“We were able to explore whether color is associated with the trade of songbirds as pets, and the potential impact of trade on individual species and the color palettes to which they contribute,” Senior says.

Price of Being Cute

Bornean Green Magpie-LC_Zhikai Liao
Bornean green magpie.

Zhikai Liao

Looks matter when it comes to wildlife.

More attractive animals draw more attention, so people are often more likely to want to protect them. But being pretty can be harmful, as well.

“Species that look beautiful, cute, or curious tend to attract attention. Sometimes that attention leads us to want to observe and protect these species, as is the case for charismatic animals like pandas and elephants,” Senior says. “But in other cases, that same appeal makes other people want to own and trade the animal, either as a pet or for its body parts, such as its pelt or ivory tusks.” 

And that’s what is happening with songbirds. Birds that people think are attractive are more likely to be traded, and more likely to face extinction risks.

“We don’t know for sure that it is trade causing these attractive birds to be threatened, but there is a lot of evidence from elsewhere that unsustainable exploitation of species for trade can cause dramatic population declines,” says Senior.

“Being attractive could, instead, be their salvation, if their beauty enthuses people to want to protect them, and if that translates to sufficient financial and political will to strongly regulate the trade of wild-caught birds.”

Measuring Color Metrics

Scarlet Finch
Scarlet finch.

Zhikai Liao

For their study, researchers developed metrics to evaluate songbirds around the world based on their color diversity. They also analyzed birds based on their “color uniqueness,” which measures how similar their coloring is to other birds.

They found that yellow and azure were very common colors for birds in the pet trade, as well as green and other shades of blue. They were surprised to find that pure white birds were also commonly traded, even though white is not a “colorful” species.

“Pure white is, however, very striking, and seems to occur on species that also have a very beautiful song, such as the Sumatran laughingthrush,” Senior says.

Their analysis also found that the most colorful birds are in the tropics, which already have the greatest diversity of songbirds. That’s where 91% of the world’s most diverse songbirds and 65% of the world’s uniquely colored songbirds live.

Researchers point out that it was easy to expect because the more species there are, the greater the opportunity for different colors to abound.

“What we didn’t anticipate was that the tropics would have the greatest diversity of color even if you correct for the number of species,” Senior says. “Given the number of species that occur in the tropics, the number of different colors represented is higher than you would expect by random chance.” 

In addition, many tropical songbirds are both at risk of extinction and are also commonly found in the pet trade. They identified 478 species of birds that may be at risk of future trade based on their colors.

The results were published in the journal Current Biology.

Protecting At-Risk Species

Indigo Flycatcher
Indigo flycatcher.

Zhikai Liao

The findings are important, researchers say, because they can be used to help protect at-risk species.

Understanding what motivates the pet trade is critical so conservationists can identify which species might need more monitoring and more protections.

“Trade has the capacity to be regulated and managed sustainably with a better understanding of what is traded as well as where and why it occurs,” Senior says. “Loss of colorful species also directly erodes aesthetic value, which is problematic because it is this value that often fundamentally supports and funds conservation efforts.” 

View Article Sources
  1. Current Biology study

  2. study author Rebecca Senior, conservation biologist at Durham University in the United Kingdom,