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.
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.