Bambang M, Contributor, Yogyakarta
It was a sunny Sunday morning and the Babarsari camping ground in Yogyakarta was alive with the sound of cheerful birds singing. The birds, of course, were not there to join in the camping. They were brought by owners to participate in a bird-singing contest. The competition started with the orange-headed thrush (Zoothera cirtrina). Each participant paid Rp 75,000 as a registration fee for their birds.
Dozens of orange-headed birds in luxurious bird cages were hung about four meters from the ground while their owners whistled and gestured to encourage their pets to respond with a series of chirps.
The entire sight was unbelievable: Each bird began chirping in their own signature singing style. They first spread their wings and dropped their heads low while shaking their body right and left. “It was like they were in a trance,” said Anthonie Kelik, a bird lover from Yogyakarta.
The orange-headed thrush became popular among Indonesian bird lovers in the 1990s. Rarely has a major bird-singing contest been held since then. Hobby magazines have dedicated a lot of space in their pages to ways of raising this particular bird, with topics ranging from where to buy it to how to teach it to sing.
The bird’s natural habitat is in the forests of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java. An adult bird — about 21 centimeters in length — is popular for its extended, beautiful notes when it sings and its unique dance. Like other birds, it is in high demand and sold at bird markets in major cities.
Due to its high demand, it has become one of the most expensive birds. A young bird, which has yet to learn to sing, for example, can fetch up to Rp 200,000 in Yogyakarta’s Ngasem bird market. That price increases to Rp 7 million for a bird that has won a competition.
“I bought my orange-headed thrusts for between Rp 2 million and Rp 7 million each,” said Anthonie, who owns five of the birds.
The orange-headed thrush has rarely been seen in its natural habitat over the last several years. In Central Java, one could often spot the bird in the forests on the south slopes of Mt. Merapi as they build their nests on indigenous zallaca plants (salak pondoh).
Besides the threat of poachers, however, this bird is losing its nesting grounds as farmers are planting a newer, higher-yielding variety of zallaca. This change in the variety has disturbed the birds’ natural habitat.
“The salak pondoh needs more frequent fertilization and weeding and these activities disturb the birds. They are scared to build their nests there,” said Triman Setyardi from the Kutilang Indonesia Foundation for Bird Conservation.
The bird is also disappearing from the Kerinci Seblat National Park in Sumatra. A survey on the birds conducted by the Center for Environmental Studies at the Andalas University from December 1998 until November 1999 was not able to find the species in its former habitat. Another survey in the same park by the bird-watching club of the Bengkulu University from November 1998 until November 1999 was not able to locate the species either.
A relative of the orange-headed thrush, the chestnut-capped thrush (Zoothera intepres), enjoys less popularity among bird lovers, but it has also met with the same fate: It cannot escape the poachers.
The shy chestnut-capped thrush is very difficult to find in its natural habitat in Nusa Tenggara, particularly Lombok, Flores, Sumba and Sunda Besar. This bird is also native to Malaysia and the Philippines.
According to Birdlife Indonesia, its numbers are very low due to excessive hunting on Sumbawa. This fact was reported by Warta Teropong, an environmental publication, in its March/April 2002 edition.
This bird is easy to spot because of its black spots on its white chest and stomach. It is locally called the Punglor kepala merah (Red-headed punglor) for the ornate red feathers on its head.
To protect its population, the then governor of West Nusa Tenggara, Warsito, banned poaching of the bird, but the move has not stopped its decrease in population. Even Birdlife Indonesia has reported that the poaching has spread as far as Flores and Sumba in East Nusa Tenggara.
While poaching of the orange-headed thrush and the chestnut-capped thrush goes on, efforts to breed both birds in captivity have not shown encouraging results.
“It’s more difficult to breed insect-eating birds than seed-eating ones,” said Sri Panuju Karso, a famous bird breeder from Kulonprogo, Yogyakarta.
Environmentalists have called on the government to legally protect the birds. But the call has met with a cold response from a local forestry official.
“It is easy to declare these birds a protected species because that would require a ministerial decree. But scientific research is needed to determine if the birds deserve the (protected) status,” said Kuspriyadi, the head of the Yogyakarta provincial agency for conservation.
But Hartono from the Yogyakarta-based Kutilang Indonesia Foundation for Bird Conservation insisted that legal protection was necessary. “We need a law to take action against the poachers,” he said in a recent seminar on conservation at Gadjah Mada University. Indonesia boasts 1,539 species of birds and the thrushes are but two of the scores of protected species.
Authors John McKinnon, Karen Phillips and Bas Van Balen in their book titled Burung-Burung di Sumatera, Kalimatan dan Jawa, (Birds of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java) said there are eight thrush species living on these islands. They are the chestnut-capped thrush, the orange-headed thrush, Everett’s thrush (Zoothera everetti), the sunda thrush (Zoothera andromedae), the siberia thrush (Zothera sibrica), the scaly thrush (Zoothera dauma), the eyebrowed thrush (Turdus obscurus) and the island thrush (Turdus poliocephalus).
But Brian J. Coates and K. David Bishop, the writers of a book that has been translated into Indonesian Panduan Lapangan Burung-Burung di Kawasan Wallacea (Sulawesi, Maluku dan Nusa Tenggara) said that there are at least 14 species of the thrush family in the territory. Some are also found on Sumatra, Kalimantan and Java. The 13 species are the sangihe shike thrush (Colluricincla sanghirensis), geomalia thrush (Geomalia heinrichi), the slaty-backed thrush (Zoothera schistacea), the maluku thrush (Zoothera dumasi), the nusa tenggara thrush (Zoothera dohertyi), the red-backed thrush (Zoothera thronota), the timor thrush (Zoothera peronis), the sunda thrush (Zoothera andromedae), the scaly thrush (Zoothera dauma), the fawn-breasted thrush (Zoothera machiki), the sulawesi thrush (Cataponera turdoides), the island thrush (Turdus poliocephalus) and the eyebrowed thrush (Turdus obscurus).