Colourful catch-22

Written by      

Erin Forsyth

Nearly 500 songbird species have been flagged as targets for wildlife poachers thanks to their unique plumage. Among them are three New Zealand species: the popokōtea/whitehead, mohua/yellowhead, and kōkako.

Like their parrot cousins, songbirds garbed in eye-catching colour palettes attract more human admiration. But bright colouration is a double-edged sword: it also makes birds highly sought after in the pet trade. In turn, this means that populations dwindle as poachers snaffle birds from the wild—a fate that currently befalls around 30 per cent of songbirds, especially in the tropics.

Colourful birds in the “perching bird” (passerine) family are more likely to be both traded and threatened with extinction, according to a new analysis. Surprisingly, white is a popular hue in captive birds—exemplified by the Bali myna, which tops off its snowy plumage with a crisp black tail-tip and zingy blue eye-liner. The myna is critically endangered due to poaching for the caged-bird market.

As populations of desired species decline, poachers shift their efforts to birds with similar qualities.

“Most of New Zealand’s birds are not too colourful—although the hihi and kōtare offer obvious exceptions,” says study co-author James Dale from Massey University. Nonetheless, New Zealand is pinpointed as a place that could see a drop in both colour diversity and uniqueness among birds. Without conservation efforts and proactive trading regulations, the future for our feathered friends could be decidedly drab.

More by