Where have all the songbirds gone?

The black-faced grassquit is one of several seed-eating birds lacking a musical song. - Faraaz Abdool
The black-faced grassquit is one of several seed-eating birds lacking a musical song. - Faraaz Abdool

Faraaz Abdool, birder and author of Casual Birding in Trinidad and Tobago, looks at the plight of seedeaters and caged songbirds.

Bullfinch, chat, and chicki-chong; robin, picoplat, and twa-twa – these were household names only a generation ago. Today, “bird-men” struggle to keep their tradition of caged songbirds alive in the face of dwindling supply and changing attitudes. Proper examination of this tradition and its consequent trade necessitates a journey back in time to the very beginning of our short history on these bountiful islands.

European colonists arrived here before ornithologists did and in the void of knowledge regarding the Neotropical ecosystem, ascribed colloquial names to many of the native species of birds. Typically, only species of “interest” would attract a name. For example, the pale-vented pigeon is locally known as “ramier”, which is French for wood-pigeon, a European bird also extensively hunted. In addition to being a source of food, birds attracted the interest of early settlers for their beautiful plumage or song.

So, the ruddy-breasted seedeater became known as the “robin” and the chestnut-bellied seed-finch was called “bullfinch” inspired by unrelated European birds bearing similar patterns. Both belong to a group of small, seed-eating birds now nestled in the Thraupidae family of tanagers. In total, nine species of seedeater from the Sporophila genus have been recorded in TT. Their rich and melodious voices were once everywhere on the local soundscape. Seedeaters were widespread on both islands, feeding on grass seeds, bamboo flowers, and various other seeds from flowering plants and trees. Bird trappers not only trap the birds but must also harvest the grass they feed on. How much less effort it would take to simply leave both in their natural, unbothered state.

Locally known as "picoplat", the grey seedeater was once common across Trinidad but was completely extirpated 20 years ago. Sightings like this are extremely rare. - Faraaz Abdool

Some species were mostly resident, others more nomadic. Their differences aside, they have one tragic commonality: they’re gone. Today, our grasslands, wetlands and forests are largely devoid of the rolling whistles of the seedeaters. Most are gone for good. Some species such as the lesson’s seedeater and lined seedeater can no longer be considered resident but may occasionally visit from mainland South America. Only two species desperately hold on in remote, isolated pockets. It is no stretch of the imagination that the reasons for their decline centre around anthropogenic factors.

Trapped for their song

It has been theorised that the widespread spraying of sugar cane was responsible for the extinction of the seedeaters. Various toxic chemicals such as carbamates and organophosphates were used on a large scale, both known to be lethal to birds in low doses. A crucial detail highlights a major flaw in this idea, however: there are several seed-eating birds occupying the same habitats as the Sporophila seedeaters that not only persevered but are currently thriving. The cardinal difference is that the survivors lack a musical song. Furthermore, it wasn’t only the seedeaters of the grasslands that disappeared, but also those occupying forest habitat.

The appearance of this lesson's seedeater in the forests of southern Trinidad in 2013 attracted birders as well as bird trappers. - Faraaz Abdool

Seedeaters, as all birds, occur in varying concentrations depending on species. Some are solitary while others are gregarious and frequently gather in large numbers. The larger species of seedeaters – large-billed seed-finch and chestnut-bellied seed-finch – would forage singly or in pairs while smaller species like the ruddy-breasted seedeater would congregate in flocks of great magnitude. Unsurprisingly given their general scarcity, both large-billed and chestnut-bellied seed-finches were the first to dwindle into extirpation in TT. Once these birds became increasingly difficult to find, populations of the then common grey seedeater (picoplat) began to plummet. As grey seedeaters became scarce, the even more ubiquitous ruddy-breasted seedeater began to disappear. By the turn of the century, most seedeater species were either gone or on their way out.

We were warned!

These population declines were witnessed and documented by ornithologist Richard ffrench, author of the seminal field guide A Guide to the Birds of TT. In the very first edition of this publication, dated 1973, the author warns of the impending disaster regarding seedeaters.

Seedeaters lead complex social lives, much of which we are only now beginning to understand. This adult yellow-bellied seedeater was observed mentoring a young male. - Faraaz Abdool

“It seems that many of those in authority regard such offences as too trivial to merit more than occasional attention. Along with the constant encroachment on habitat, the unchecked trapping of male finches,…will undoubtedly result in the complete extinction in Trinidad within a decade or so of all these species…”

At the time, the ruddy-breasted seedeater was so widespread across TT that it was the only species earmarked with any hope for long-term survival. By the time the second edition to A Guide to the Birds of TT was published in 1991, ffrench wrote, “It is significant that this small Sporophila species was for long the most common in Trinidad, being rarely caged, but as the larger species became scarce, it too began to be persecuted. Only a change in public attitude will save these finches from local extinction.”

Lined seedeaters were once resident in both Trinidad and Tobago, but trapping has pushed them out and discouraged any hope of a sustainable population. Sightings presently are of migrants from South America. - Faraaz Abdool

Seedeaters lead complex social lives, much of which we are only now beginning to understand. The TT Field Naturalists’ Club also tried to draw attention to the plight of the seedeaters, highlighting the dangerously low numbers and the kindling of an illegal trade in birds at Trinidad’s southern border in 1984.

We are only a couple years shy of the 50-year anniversary of the first red flags being raised about the decline of our native seedeaters. We have remained nonchalant, non-compliant, and barbaric. We have disregarded any concept of empathy for the birds’ lives, how their social structure works, the stability of their population, their irreplaceable role in the ecosystem, and so much more. The overwhelming majority of songbirds living in cages in TT are seedeaters smuggled from the mainland. Birds are caught in their natural habitat across several South American countries, stuffed in unbelievably tiny containers and sent to the border where they cross over into Trinidad along with other contraband such as ammunition, drugs, bushmeat, and human cargo. Most birds die before they arrive. Yet they continue to come as an insatiable demand persists.

Even birds that come on their own whim dare not sing a note or else risk being trapped. It is a business, after all, and whatever has a monetary value is destined to be treated as a commodity at best. Humans have historically kept birds in cages – but haunting our sordid past is the fact that we also kept other humans in cages. We may still be struggling with the concept of equal rights for all of humanity, but we must learn faster. We are gradually coming to terms with animal cognition and sentience. Hopefully it will dawn upon us – before it is too late – that those blessed with wings deserve to fly.


"Where have all the songbirds gone?"

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