21 November 2011

A bird in the bush is worth two in the cage

The trapping and trading of wild birds has been illegal in Brazil since the Fauna Protection Law was introduced in 1967, but like across much of the country, hunting wild birds in the Atlantic Forest for the cage-bird trade remains commonplace and a major threat to many species, several of which are classified as Threatened. Many of the birds trapped are destined for the international black market, however, in Rio de Janeiro state, as in many parts of Brazil, keeping native species as cage-birds is very popular within the local community, and cages containing trapped wild birds can be found hanging outside homes, bars, shops, and especially barbers, everywhere. In Cachoeiras de Macacu, a small town about 21 km from REGUA, rows of cages of all shapes and sizes can be found for sale outside several shops, indicating just how popular cage-birds are, and bizarrely, you can even sometimes see people taking their caged birds for a 'walk'.

Green-winged Saltator in a cage outside a shop in Cachoeiras de Macacu in Rio
de Janeiro state. This high altitude species is commonly kept as a cage-bird despite
legislation in place to protect them, and most are trapped locally.

Rows of bird cages for sale in Cachoeiras de Macacu, a small town near REGUA
in Rio de Janeiro state. Most cage-birds in RJ state are native species caught
from the wild and sold in illegal markets. The quantity of cages for sale indicates
just how popular keeping cage-birds remains in the local community.

Captive Blue-bellied Parrot at a small rural property near REGUA. This Atlantic
Forest endemic is one of the more unusual species seen as a cage-bird in the
area. Although trapping places some pressure on this species, habitat loss is
a far more serious threat. Blue-bellied Parrot is classified as Near Threatened.
(Photo by Alan Martin)

In the REGUA area, the most common method employed by hunters to trap birds for the cage-bird trade is to use a captive bird placed next to an empty cage baited with food to attract the targeted species. The unsuspecting bird enters the cage to get to the food and becomes trapped. Birds are then transported for sale in illegals markets in local towns or Rio de Janeiro, often in huge quantities. Hunting is therefore an easy and inexpensive way to make money, and with demand remaining high and some local authorities turning a blind eye, it is difficult to imagine this threat going away any time soon. However, the enforcement wing of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), INEA (RJ state government authorities), with help from the Brazilian NGO Renctas, are having some success tackling illegal hunting and trade, but the scale of the problem means that resources are nowhere near enough to enforce the law effectively.

Although rather drab in plumage by neotropical standards, seedeaters are particularly sought after as cage-birds for their songs, and in the REGUA area male Buffy-fronted and Double-collared Seedeaters are common in cages. Another species very commonly kept as a cage-bird in the area is Green-winged Saltator, and they can frequently be heard singing from apartments and shops in the nearby towns. Thrushes, especially Rufous-bellied Thrush, are also very popular as are Saffron Finch and Bare-throated Bellbird, and Temminck's Seedeater are also sometimes kept.

Double-collared Seedeater is one of the most common seedeaters in southern
South America, with a very large range. Preferring semi-open country, including
agricultural land, deforestation together with the spread of exotic grasses
has helped the population increase and although they are one of the most
popular cage-birds in Brazil, they are not considered threatened.

Male Buffy-fronted Seedeater. A nomadic bamboo specialist, this Atlantic Forest
endemic is heavily targeted by the cage-bird trade for its loud song, and large
numbers are often sold illegally in Rio de Janeiro. Adding to this problem,
deforestation has reduced their bamboo habitat and extended the length of time
between large scale scale bamboo flowerings, which in turn affects breeding.
Buffy-fronted Seedeater is classified as Vulnerable. (Photo by Leonardo Pimentel)

Rufous-bellied Thrush, the national bird of Brazil since 2002, is highly sough after
as a cage-bird for its song, and very popular in the REGUA area.

Another popular cage-bird, male Saffron Finches are very territorial and sometimes
used for blood sports, with two males placed in a cage to fight. This barbaric
practice was banned in Brazil 20 years ago, but has recently been reported from
the US.

Immature male Bare-throated Bellbird. Endemic to the Atlantic Forest, this cotinga
is under pressure from the cage-bird trade for its unmusical but extremely loud
song. They are relatively uncommon in cages in the REGUA area due to policing
by IBAMA, and a local in the village of Mutumbo near REGUA had four birds
confiscated by IBAMA during my visit this month. Trapping pressure is much
higher in other states such as southern Bahia, São Paulo and Santa Catarinam,
and they remain relatively common in the forest of Rio de Janeiro state. Also
threatened by deforestation, Bell-throated Bellbird is classified as Vulnerable.
(Photo by Tasso Leventis)

Key to addressing this problem is a change in local attitudes towards biodiversity, and as is so often the case, small NGOs are making more progress with this than government legislation or the authorities. REGUA is one of the few protected areas in the Atlantic Forest employing local people, mostly ex-hunters, as rangers to patrol the reserve. As a result, since 2001 hunting at REGUA has declined by an estimated 98%! Obviously some hunting activity would simply have been displaced onto adjacent land, so perhaps even more importantly, REGUA has been helping to slowly change local attitudes towards the forest and it's wildlife. REGUA's education programme teaches local school children about the Atlantic Forest and it's wildlife is unique and therefore in need of preserving. REGUA is now the second largest employer in the local area, with 30 full-time staff (and more employed during the tree planting season), many of whom are involved in wildlife tourism to the reserve. By providing employment REGUA is demonstrating that the Atlantic Forest and its wildlife, traditionally viewed as worthless and to be exploited, can provide a sustainable source of income if conserved and respected.

Culturally, there's been a shift away from hunting towards the observation of wild birds amongst wealthier Brazilians. Birding has grown rapidly in popularity in Brazil over the last few years, with increasing numbers of young men and, refreshingly, women, becoming interested in birds, often through photography (take a look at the excellent WikiAves website). Brazil now has it's own bird fair (Avistarbrasil), and in contrast to when I first visited REGUA five years ago, there doesn't seem to be a week that goes by without several Brazilian birders visiting the reserve, with the active Rio de Janeiro Birdwatchers' Club also making regular visits. Earlier this year some Brazilian birders even found themselves twitching when a flock of ultra rare Brown-backed Parrotlets turned up in Ubatuba.

In addition, REGUA's Raquel Locke also reports that computer games appear to be replacing hunting as a pastime amongst the local young men. I wonder how long it will be before Ultimate Bellbird Hunting becomes available on the Wii?


Many thanks to Adilei Carvalho da Cunha for providing information on the bird species targeted by hunters and the methods of capture, to Nicholas and Raquel Locke for additional information about trapping and trafficking, and to Tasso Leventis, Alan Martin and Leonardo Pimentel for permission to use their photos.

Read more about the problem of illegal wildlife trafficking in Brazil here.


  1. really excellent post Lee. Just left Thailand after two months there, and depressingly witnessed the same problems on a very regular basis.

  2. Thanks Mark. The scale of the problem in Brazil is enormous and I left a few shocking facts out of the post because they are just too depressing. Let's hope local attitudes change and pressure increases on those authorities not currently enforcing the law. Check out the photos of a Brazilian pet shop here. There's even woodpeckers in cages!

  3. i couldn't agree more. This is, unfortunately, not just a Brazilian problem, but a commom problem worldwide, especially in third world countries...

    By the way, may i present my own bird blog:

    Interested in birds? Check out the Birds of the World blog, where you can learn something about a different bird everyday!

  4. Michael Stanford27 June 2012 at 18:33

    This is really unfortunate, I have read an article in the past regarding Brazil to be one of the most places where caged birds are found and sold on stores. Lets not hope that there comes a time when these birds will be extinct.