Beijing’s Wild Bird Markets

The market at Fuchengmen is just one of Beijing's wild bird markets.  Apparently there are more than 6 in total.
This guy was ‘training’ Japanese Grosbeaks to chase seeds, blown into the air through a thin tube, and then return to their perch.  The market at Fuchengmen is just one of Beijing’s wild bird markets. Apparently there are more than 10 in total across the city.

How would you like 2 COMMON REDPOLLS for a pound?  Or maybe you’d prefer a SIBERIAN ACCENTOR for 3 pounds?  They are pretty, after all…  Actually, you look quite rich… maybe you fancy a MONGOLIAN LARK for 15 pounds? I know it’s expensive but boy, can they sing!

This is what the traders were offering on Sunday afternoon during a visit to the wild bird market at Fuchengmen, west Beijing.

Two friends – Yueheng and Xiaomai – very kindly offered to accompany freelance journalist, Debbie Bruno, and me to one of at least 10 wild bird markets in Beijing.  For me, the market was both shocking and revealing.  Shocking because it was operating openly inside the 2nd ring road of one of the world’s major capital cities.  And revealing because it taught me a lot about the culture and demographics of the traders, the trappers and the buyers.

In a 2-hour visit, I logged 28 species on sale in the bird market, including familiar species such as Bohemian Waxwing, Bluethroat, Marsh, Japanese, Yellow-bellied and Long-tailed Tits, Common Redpoll, Siberian Accentor, Siberian Rubythroat and Pallas’s Warbler.  I was wide-eyed.

A Pallas's Warbler in a cage.  Desperately sad, especially as this species is insectivorous and unlikely to survive long being fed seeds.
A Pallas’s Warbler.  In a cage. Desperately sad, especially as this species is insectivorous and unlikely to survive for long on a diet of seeds.

However, from speaking with Yueheng, this was a quiet day.  Yueheng and Xiaomai have been studying the birds in this market for more than 10 years and have logged more than 300 species (!), including Pallas’s Sandgrouse, Derbyan Parakeet, Oriental Pied Hornbill and Fairy Pitta.  Astonishing.

I wanted to find out how much these birds were selling for.  After speaking with a few of the sellers, this was the going rate on Sunday:

COMMON REDPOLL (one of the most common birds on offer in the market) – 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1)

PALLAS’S WARBLER – 40 Yuan each (GBP 4)

MONGOLIAN LARK – 150 Yuan (GBP 15) – they can sing (!), although there was almost certainly an element of “foreigner inflation” going on here…

CHINESE HILL BABBLER – 150 Yuan (GBP 15) – they can sing, too.

Common Redpolls were available - 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1) at Fuchengmen.
Common Redpolls were available – 2 for 10 Yuan (GBP 1) at Fuchengmen.

Given the costs of transporting live birds, the likelihood that many birds almost certainly die in transit, and the fact that business looked slow (I didn’t see a single transaction), this clearly wasn’t a lucrative business.   So I wanted to know whether selling wild birds was the main source of income for the traders.

Most traders had a small stock and were 'getting on'...
Most traders had a small stock and were ‘getting on’…

After discussing with Yueheng and Xiaomai, apparently, for most of the traders, it’s a supplementary income or even just a hobby – the majority had full-time jobs or were retired.  To me, this is encouraging as it means that, unlike the shorebird trapping in Guangdong, southern China, where many local villagers make their living from trapping birds for the restaurant trade, better enforcement of the law by the authorities in Beijing will likely face less resistance.

As we wandered around, it was interesting to see that the vast majority of the traders, and the interested buyers, were old men.  This gave me more encouragement as it suggested that the custom of owning caged birds is primarily an old man’s pursuit and, not being cruel, most old men will not be around much longer….

The scene at Fuchengmen.  Mostly smelly old men.
The scene at Fuchengmen. Mostly smelly old men.

It was heartbreaking to see so many wild birds being kept in tiny cages.  And those not in cages were tied to a perch using a chain around their neck.  The vast majority were clearly distressed, with many showing abnormal feather loss and/or repetitive behaviour as they bounced around their prison cells looking for a way out.

A Red Crossbill tied with a chain around its neck.  Can you think of anything more cruel?
A Red Crossbill tied with a chain around its neck. Can you think of anything more cruel?
A sad-looking BOHEMIAN WAXWING.  Must be wondering what it did to deserve this....
A sad-looking BOHEMIAN WAXWING. Must be wondering what it did to deserve this….

I asked some of the traders where the birds had been caught.  Most said “Beijing”, although some were from “Dong Bei” (north-east China) with a much smaller portion from southern China (Yellow-cheeked Tit and Red-faced Liocichla were some of the non-Beijing birds on sale).

As we walked around the market, Yueheng and Xiaomai told us some fascinating anecdotes.  Here are a few:

– apparently Marsh Tits from Henan and Shandong are worth much more than those from Beijing as they are thought to sing better!

– small birds, particularly those not known to sing or with beautiful plumage, can sell for as little as 3 Yuan for 2 (GBP 0.15 each)

– the authorities have been cracking down on raptor sales…  an old lady from Tai’an in Shandong Province had been busted selling JAPANESE SPARROWHAWK, SHORT-EARED OWL, PIED HARRIER and WHITE’S THRUSH.  The police confiscated the raptors but gave her back the WHITE’S THRUSH so she could sell it in the local market (!)

– many of the ‘consumers’ are Buddhists who want to buy and release birds for their own “gong de”, believing that these good deeds help to “cleanse” their soul.

The cagebird trade, although a cruel and outdated tradition, pales into insignificance when compared with habitat loss and the trapping for food that is so widespread in south China in terms of being major threats to wild bird populations.  Even so, I will do everything I can to support Yueheng and Xiaomai to raise awareness and encourage greater law enforcement in Beijing and beyond.  Trapping wild birds for the cage bird trade is simply unacceptable in a modern society.

26 thoughts on “Beijing’s Wild Bird Markets”

  1. OMG, can’t watch it at all. I think I might now this place, and my parents sometimes buy flowers there. 花鸟鱼虫市场, the maket sells flowers, birds, fish and insects.
    I hope more Chinese bird lovers can really stand up and tell our local government, this should never be tolerated.

  2. A good article Terry. Do your friends know what Chinese law say about trapping or selling of wild birds. All birds and their nest are protected in Hong Kong.


    1. Hi Mike. It’s complicated! But perhaps one of our Chinese readers can enlighten us. There is a list of “specially protected species” under Chinese law but it is 20 years old and, apparently, doesn’t include many IUCN-classified endangered species, including Spoon-billed Sandpiper! The list is currently under review and it’s one of the things I am discussing with the Environment Protection Committee in the National Peoples Congress. I also know that BirdLife are working with Chinese contacts to expand the list. Clearly, the default should be that all species are on the list. Cheers, Terry

  3. it seems your two friends did not mention the “proper” use of the common redpoll. you may have noticed that usually song birds are not caged so crowded without even a perch. in your picture for example, redpolls with dirty and broken feathers is a shame for its owner. these birds however, is likely to be used for a even more shocking “setting free” activity. buddhists claim that by releasing animals, mainly wild-captured birds, domestic poultry, farmed fish, wild-captured snakes to wherever in the wild they can wash away guilty and gain luck. thousannds of thousands of birds die from this capture-transport-wholesale-release chain each year.

    1. Gao Chang, thank you. My friends did tell me about the practice of “setting free” but we didn’t discuss it at length. The indiscriminate release of wild birds and animals is fraught with risk, not least for the wildlife itself. And, of course, it almost certainly fuels demand for wild birds and animals in the first place. I am sure that is not the buddhists’ intention but, nevertheless, it’s a consequence of their actions. Thanks again for your comment.

      1. Apparently the legal situation is this: in theory any bird not on the list of protected species (which is most) can be hunted. However, to take birds from the wild, a permit is required from the State Forestry Administration. I understand it’s very difficult to obtain permits, so it’s very likely that every poacher we encounter is operating illegally. Of course, when the protected species list is updated, as is happening at the moment, many more species will be fully protected. I urge the Chinese government to include ALL species on the list but I think that is unlikely to happen at this time.

  4. Definitely a heart-breaking scene Terry. I’m living straight across such a place. Except the Eurasian Tree sparrow all the birds are available in the market. I had my first Rubythroat n Bluethroat in the market such a shame to see those beauties in tiny cages. As you had said, mostly old men are into it, a old man in my apartment complex has dozen Hwamei’s (?). The basic concept of Buddism is to show kindness n love to other living beings, tht’s when Siddharth became Buddha. Eventhough Buddism was found in India, it spread enormously in China, where is the kindness to wildlife in China when the first preference is delicacy for “Wild Cuisine” n having birds in cage.

    1. Thanks Dev. I, too, see wild birds in cages just across the street from my apartment – mostly Hill Myna, Crested Myna, Yellow-bellied Tit and Marsh Tit. I look forward to the day when this outdated practice is eradicated completely!

    1. I will try to visit some more markets to expose them. Xiaomai and Yueheng are doing a great job reporting what they see to the authorities but action seems to be very patchy at best. The fact that these markets are operating openly is a clear sign that the risk of being punished by the law is very low.

    1. It’s unlikely one would stumble across these markets… but they are certainly not hidden away. I am going to try to find out the locations of all of the known wild bird markets in Beijing and persuade a journalist to run an article exposing them. I think the general public, the young in particular, would be outraged to see pictures of tens of birds cramped in small cages and tied to chains.

  5. Terry,

    Thank you for the post. I’m a Chinese government official and would like to share my view.

    As you may already know, wildlife market (花鸟鱼虫市场) is not illegal in China, and it is not even a “grey market”. As you correctly pointed out, the list of “specially protected species” under Chinese law is outdated. And the enforcement of the law is also undermined by the reality that many policymen don’t have enough knowledge on the protected species. You mentioned in your post that the seller of raptors was busted, and I think the main reason is that the policymen know clearly that all the raptors are on the protection list. Raising and watching caged birds (and training them to sing) was an popular hobby among rich people in China in the past, that is the reason that most of the customers are old people, and that it is difficult to ban the trade of ALL wild birds.
    However, time is changing and I know that the government is considering an overhaul of wifelife protection law. I heard that there are going to be two main changes: 1. to put protection of habitat as a priority. 2. (As you suggested) the default should be protection of all the wildlifes, with some exception. Of course, such an overhaul is not easy, as it should get approval of so many government agencies and need to fight against so many interested groups. But I hope finally we can make it.

    Last week I asked the question on wildlife protection after your presentation. Although I am not 100% satisfied with your answer, we share the same view that Chinese people and government should do more on wildlife protection.

    Pan Wenxing

    1. Dear Pan Wenxing,
      Thank you very much for your comment. I am very grateful to you for taking the time to explain the position with such clarity in your second language. Although the markets themselves may not be technically illegal, am I correct in saying that obtaining the birds from the wild IS illegal, if it is done without a permit. Maybe the law could be changed (as it is in some countries) to place the onus of proving the origin of the birds (and other wildlife) on the seller. That is to say that the seller must be able to prove that the birds or animals have not been taken from the wild? That way, a policeman doesn’t need to be able to identify the birds but simply needs to ask the seller to show a valid permit. If he or she cannot produce a valid permit, the seller can be apprehended.
      I am encouraged by your suggestion that the government is planning a crackdown on illegal wildlife trade. Even if it is only on species that are already on the protected list, it will be a big step forward.
      I also wouldn’t like to single out China on this. Many countries do not do enough to protect wildlife (and I include my own government in the UK, too!). I would like to think we share the same view that ALL people and ALL governments should do more on wildlife protection!
      Thank you again for commenting – I much appreciate it.
      Best wishes, Terry

  6. BTW, I was told by friends that the Government is planning a masive crack down of illegal wildlife trading in China. CCTV is working on a TV program on this topic. But again, please note the key word “illegal”.

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