By Debra Bruno
On a recent weekend at the bird market near Fuchengmen on Beijing’s west side, dozens of older men sit in the sun surrounded by bird cages. One is jammed with a dozen small wild Common Redpoll birds—which sell for as little as 10 yuan ($1.65) for two—scrambling over one another, pushing against the bars of the cage. Another holds a large, brown-striped Mongolian lark singing a piercing song for 150 yuan.
Terry Townshend, a Beijing-based birdwatcher and birding blogger, sighs at the sight of so many captive wild birds. “I can’t believe they’ll survive very long” in captivity, he says.
Despite laws prohibiting the sale of wild songbirds without a license, it’s a common practice in Beijing and elsewhere in China. And what was once a quaint custom is today a practice that is cutting into a dwindling population.
As the country develops, birds are losing their habitat. For migratory birds, that means fewer areas to rest on their long tracks from Siberia to as far away as Australia and New Zealand, says Per Alstrom, a visiting ornithology professor at Beijing’s Chinese Academy of Sciences.
“They really depend on staging places along the coast,” he says. “There’s no way they would survive if they didn’t have that, and so if the coast is too developed, a lot of species could become extinct.”
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that in China, more than half of the tidal sand and mud flats along the migratory flyway have been lost to development and invasive plants that destroy the wetlands.
Trapping birds to sell as pets and for food also contributes to the decline, Mr. Alstrom says. Many of the birds found in the market are species commonly found in Beijing in the winter, but rarer birds show up from time to time, says Mr. Townshend. Li Xiaomei, an illustrator who has been quietly tallying species at Beijing’s bird markets since 1998, says he has spotted rare species such as the blue slaty and the Eurasian sparrow hawk at the markets.
Although there are regulations prohibiting the practice, police simply have too many other things to worry about, says Simba Chan, senior conservation officer for BirdLife International, a conservation organization. “Wildlife protection is not high in priority.”
Keeping caged birds—and taking them for a “walk” in local parks—is a tradition as old as Beijing’s courtyard homes.
“It’s an ingrained part of Chinese culture,” like flying kites, eating candied haw berries or burning incense, says M.A. Aldrich, author of a guide to Beijing and its old customs. More....