A typical assortment birds, including both native and exotic species, for sale at a bird market in Java, Indonesia. (Photograph by Stuart Marsden)

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Annually, trade in wildlife is worth billions of dollars globally, but it also threatens thousands of species with extinction. Birds are among the most heavily traded species, especially in Indonesia where huge demand for birds as pets is draining the country’s wild bird populations causing an ‘Asian Songbird Crisis’. The problem is particularly acute on Java, where 84 million pet birds are kept, almost one for every two people.

Consumers and traders are often ignorant of laws protecting wild bird species which are rarely enforced by authorities. Conservation biologists are therefore looking for ways to reduce this pressure on wild birds, borrowing techniques from other disciplines to detect patterns of human behaviour that directly impact wildlife, and hence to identify different groups of people who behave more similarly to each other than they do to members of other groups. We interviewed nearly one thousand people across Java willing to explain their choices, needs and interests in bird keeping, and found we could classify them into three types (user-groups): hobbyists, who own birds primarily as pets; contestants,who own birds to enter in singing contests; and breeders, who own birds to breed and train for resale or as a pastime. The biggest difference between these user-groups is that contestants and breeders are specialists, investing considerable time and money in their birds, whereas hobbyists spend less money on fewer birds and show little interest whether their birds come from the wild or are bred commercially. Contestants are relatively young, urban and affluent; hobbyists are middle-aged and generally commoner in western Java, whereas breeders are more found in eastern Java, where a strong bird-breeding tradition persists.

Realistically Indonesia’s bird trade is too economically and culturally important to be completely stopped. However, our analysis of user-groups indicates the need for a campaign to persuade hobbyists, who do the greatest damage because they are numerically the strongest group, to buy only captive-bred birds, and to encourage contestants and breeders to do likewise while increasing their output through legitimate breeding enterprises.