Archived 2016 topics: Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus): uplist from Vulnerable to Endangered?

Straw-headed Bulbul (BirdLife species factsheet) is a Sundaic lowland forest and secondary growth riparian specialist with the unfortunate curse of a golden voice. Currently listed as Vulnerable on the basis that the species is estimated to have undergone population declines of between 30-49% over a ten year period in the past, in the current period and suspected to do so in the future based on a decline in the extent or area of occupancy or in habitat quality, and on actual or potential levels of exploitation.

The species was long ago elevated to the status of one of most desirable songbirds, certainly in Indonesia, and is consistently the most expensive species in the markets (Nash 1993, Shepherd 2006, Harris et al. 2015). The relatively mild degree of habitat specialism of the species actually rendered it highly accessible to trappers, as being tied to watercourses allowed systematic trapping through each watershed (Wells 2007). Straw-headed Bulbul is now targeted wherever it is known to occur. From being common throughout its large range (southernmost Myanmar and Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and Borneo) in the 1950s it is now considered with some certainty to be extinct in Java, Nias and Sipora and is likely to very close to extinction on Sumatra (Eaton et al. 2015). The species was considered to be Endangered in Peninsular Malaysia in 2007 after suffering a ‘near-total collapse’ (Wells 2007), and on Borneo it is being trapped even in protected areas (including Danum Valley) (Eaton et al. 2015). Very few are thought to persist in Kalimantan and although small numbers are still appearing for sale (at $300+ per bird) it is unclear from whereabouts these birds are sourced, as other species have been observed being transported across the border from Sarawak (Eaton et al. 2015, J. Eaton in litt. 2016).

Of 119 localities mapped for the species in Indonesia in Threatened Birds of Asia (BirdLife International 2001) only 13 have any records after 1980, and then only (very few) records for Kalimantan since 2010, with birds trapped even in very remote areas (e.g. Brickle et al. 2010). The only location throughout the species’ range in which it has increased in recent years is Singapore, a population likely founded through escapes, and even here birds are being targeted (Anon. 2006). Straw-headed Bulbul has been fully legally protected in Malaysia since 2010, and seizures since that time have led to prosecutions and fines for the traders caught (Shepherd et al. 2013). It is listed on Appendix II of CITES. However illegal trade continues and there seems little enforcement in Indonesia, the driver of the trade, where the species is still not legally protected under national law (Shepherd et al. 2013). At present an ‘Association of Straw-headed Bulbul Breeders’ is supplying birds to the market in Indonesia (Jepson et al. 2011), but the effect of this group in the absence of effective enforcement may be to maintain an otherwise uneconomically viable market into which wild-caught birds can continue to be supplied. Chng et al. (2015) found that the average asking price of the 9 individuals in 2014 was $547.

While it is arguable that the global population decline over any 10-year period has exceeded 49% (the high end of Vulnerable) this has continued unrelentingly for several decades to the point of regional extinction in many locations. The most recent population estimate of 10,000-19,999 mature individuals in 2001 (with poor data quality) looks in hindsight to have been an overestimate, considering the species had disappeared from many locations even by that time.

Matters appear now to have proceeded to the point at which the species’ population in the wild is likely to have fallen below <2,500 mature individuals, and the number of mature individuals in each subpopulation may now be fewer than 250. If these statements are correct, the species will qualify as Endangered under criterion C2a(i).

Is there any information that would enable a more precise assessment of the current population size? It is suspected that the species would fall in the band 1,000 to 2,499 individuals, converted to a rounded figure of 600-1,700 mature individuals. This is based on a rough appraisal of the locations with populations currently persisting, primarily large Protected Areas in Malaysia and also the small population on Singapore and adjacent islands.

For the species to be considered Critically Endangered, the global population decline within a ten-year period prior to, including or into the future from now, would need to exceed 80%, or the current number of mature individuals would need to be fewer than 250 coupled with an ongoing decline in excess of 25% in 3 years.



Anon. 2006. Poaching of Straw-headed Bulbul. Bird Ecology Study Group, Nature Society (Singapore). Accessed 24th August 2016.

Brickle, N.W., Eaton, J.A. and Rheindt. F. 2010. A rapid bird survey of the Menyapa mountains, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Forktail 26: 31-41.

Chng, S. C. L., Eaton, J. A., Krishnasamy, K., Shepherd, C. R. & Nijman, V. 2015. In the market for extinction: an inventory of Jakarta’s bird markets. Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia: TRAFFIC.

Eaton, J.A., Shepherd, C.R., Rheindt, F.E., Harris, J.B.C., van Balen, S. (B.), Wilcove, D.S. and Collar, N.J. 2015. Trade-driven extinctions and near-extinctions of avian taxa in Sundaic Indonesia. Forktail 31: 1-12.

Jepson, P., Ladle, R. J. & Sujatnika (2011) Assessing market-based conservation governance approaches: a socio-economic profile of Indonesian markets for wild birds. Oryx 45: 482–491.

Nash, S.V. 1993. Sold for a Song. The Trade in Southeast Asian Non-CITES Birds. TRAFFIC International, Cambridge, UK.

Shepherd, C. R. 2006. The bird trade in Medan, North Sumatra: an overview. BirdingASIA 5: 16–24.

Shepherd, C. R., Shepherd, L. A. & Foley, K.-E. 2013. Straw-headed Bulbul Pycnonotus zeylanicus: legal protection and enforcement action in Malaysia. BirdingASIA 19: 92–94.

Wells, D. R. 2007. The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula, 2. London: Christopher Helm.

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9 Responses to Archived 2016 topics: Straw-headed Bulbul (Pycnonotus zeylanicus): uplist from Vulnerable to Endangered?

  1. James Eaton says:

    I see no reason why this species should not be proposed for uplisting to Critically Endangered when Sumatran Mesia (which presumably is persists in far greater numbers given extent of remote habitat and numbers found in markets) is, this, in my opinion should be the reverse.
    In Peninsular Malaysia, are there now any viable populations away from Taman Negara National Park? Are there any sightings from elsewhere in the past 2-3 years? Local populations I know of 5 years ago in Peninsular Malaysia have now disappeared. Similar story in Sarawak, and away from Danum Valley Conservation Area, are there other sites holding sizeable populations in Sabah?
    No records in Sumatra since 2009, extinct in Thailand, Java and presumably Myanmar (though surveys required here for the species given area of habitat remain) and a handful, at best from the remotest areas of Kalimantan in recent years, along the continued destruction of lowland, alluvial forest, making very little habitat secure for the species.

  2. Adam Miller says:

    We agree with James that this species should be immediately uplisted to Critically Endangered.

    Planet Indonesia is a grassroots NGO based in West Kalimantan (Borneo) Indonesia. Among a number of programs, we are currently the only local NGO in the region with a large program focused on the wild bird trade. Beginning in 2015 we began the first investigations into the wild bird trade in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Our initial goal was to challenge the idea that the bird trade in Indonesia was a Java/Sumatran-centric enterprise, and investigate if the bird trade was rampant in rural areas among other ethnic groups as well.

    We investigated the 7 major cities in West Kalimantan and traveled major roads connecting urban and rural areas to map out shops and collect data. From 3 (ranging from 5-6 weeks per survey minimum time between surveys 6 weeks) surveys covering the entirety of West Borneo, we found a total of 13,498 individual from 123 species in over 90 different shops.

    Our data raises extreme cause for concern as we had not expected to find such a large number of species sold in rural and underdeveloped areas in of Indonesia.

    The straw-headed bulbul was the most expensive species across our study (average price USD$483). Some individuals which were well-known for their singing ability were sold for as much as USD $1200.

    As price as an indicator of demand and rarity, this number supports the up listing of this species.

    Across all our surveys only a total of 22 individuals were found throughout the region. Its high price and low volume further supports the uplisting of this species.

    From a short 2 month field study in Gunung Palung National Park across 119 point counts this species was never found (as I conducted the study, from the 2 months there while birding “off-count” I never once saw or heard a Straw-headed Bulbul). The critically endangered Bornean orangutan was more commonly found throughout this study than the Straw-headed Bulbul.

    This lowland rainforest with high quality riparian habitat should support a sizeable population of this species, and previous data shows this species to have been found throughout the park.

    Preliminary results from interviews with over 70 shopowners show this species to be one of the hardest to find, of highest demand, and most quickly increasing in price.

    We strongly support the uplisting of this species, and urge BirdLife to move this species to Critically Endangered rather than Endangered.

  3. Serene Chng says:

    We also agree that this species should be immediately uplisted to Critically Endangered.

    Surveys of bird markets in North and West Kalimantan, and Central, West and East Java between July 2014 and June 2015, and observed a total of 71 Straw-headed Bulbuls in 11 markets in eight cities – from West Kalimantan, 1 was observed in Sungai Pinyuh, 8 in Pontianak and 3 in Putussibau; 2 were observed in Malinau in North Kalimantan; 9 in Jakarta, 17 in Yogyakarta, 16 in Surabaya and 15 in Malang (Chng et al., 2015; Chng and Eaton, 2016; Bergin et al., in prep). Additionally, 11 Straw-headed Bulbuls were recorded for sale in Bandung in September 2016, for IDR6-7.5 million. Individuals recorded ranged from immature birds to full adults.

    In Kalimantan, traders reported Straw-headed Bulbuls to have been locally sourced, suggesting that some populations remain. In Jakarta, the birds were said to be sourced from a number of localities, including Sumatra (also referred to by traders as ‘Lampung’ – a generic term used to describe birds from Sumatra as it’s the nearest port to Java), Kalimantan, and Peninsular Malaysia; as there have been no records of the species from Sumatra, birds claimed to be sourced from ‘Lampung’ may in fact originate from other locations. In Surabaya, three birds in Kupang market were from Sumatra, and one from Kalimantan. In Malang, at least one bird was allegedly sourced from Kalimantan. In Yogyakarta, one stall had 10 birds that were allegedly sourced from Sumatra and Kalimantan.

    One of the birds in Bratang, a female, had a closed ring on her leg, indicating that she was ‘captive-bred’. In Kalimantan, five of the birds observed were said to be wild-caught and 2 captive-bred. Traders were open about the sources of their animals and wild-caught individuals were considered superior because of their song quality. There was therefore an incentive to stock wild-caught birds over captive-bred individuals if traders could acquire them (Bergin et al., in prep). We do not know what proportion of birds in trade come from captive-bred sources, and how much of these are in fact ranched (where eggs or hatchlings are acquired from the wild and then reared and sold as ‘captive-bred’).

    Comparing our data with the literature, we found that as numbers recorded in markets are rapidly diminishing as wild populations are depleted. Between 1991 and 1993, 1100 Straw-headed Bulbuls were counted in 37 out of 39 surveys carried out by TRAFFIC across Sumatra and Java (Nash 1993), an average of 30 birds per market – over four times that of our average of 6.5 birds per market. Monthly surveys over a five-year period from January 1997 – December 2001 across three markets in Medan (Sumatra) indicated that, although trade fluctuated (lowest number seen = 2, highest = 86) and numbers rarely exceeded 45 individuals per survey, Straw-headed Bulbuls were a constant presence in the markets, with an average of 25 birds observed per survey during 59 surveys (Shepherd et al. 2004), significantly more than were observed in markets of a similar or larger size in Java in 2014 and 2015.

    On the other hand, prices are increasing to over 20 times the prices recorded in 1987 (Bergin et al., in prep), indicating increasing rarity as also shown in Harris et al. (2015). From the Jakarta survey (Chng et al., 2015), Straw-headed Bulbuls were the third most expensive species out of 65 species for which prices were obtained, and prices recorded from the survey in Chng and Eaton (2016) are even higher. This is corroborated by widespread extirpations throughout their range and reports from traders that Straw-headed Bulbuls are increasingly difficult to locate, and that demand from consumers remains high.

    Remaining populations in Kalimantan are confined to areas far from human habitation (Meijaard et al. 2015). The current status in Brunei is unknown although five individuals were observed along the Kuala Belait River as recently as 2013 and populations may persist in areas inaccessible to poachers (Hindricks 2013).
    In Singapore, the species is still recorded for sale both in pet shops (a total of eight records of birds in two shops over 4 ad hoc visits) and online (advertisements offering a total of six birds posted in 2013 and 2015). The provenance of the birds are unknown, but there are three possible sources for Straw-headed Bulbuls traded in Singapore: they are individuals that were legally imported into the country before 2000; they were smuggled in from neighbouring countries; or they were poached from Singaporean wild populations (Chng et al., in press).

    The UNEP-WCMC CITES Trade Database only has exporter-reported records of 646 individuals (all wild-caught) originating from Malaysia between 1997 and 2000, imported into Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan and Netherlands. Although there are no records beyond 2000, it is likely that unreported (illegal) international trade in the species is still taking place. Examples of illicit trade include two seizures involving Straw-headed Bulbuls that were carried out in Malaysia in 2014 and 2015.

    Due to the continued high demand of the species from trade, and decrease in wild populations resulting from continued trapping of individuals from the few remaining extant populations, we strongly support the uplisting of this species and agree that a Critically Endangered assessment is more suitable for the species.

    Chng, S.C.L. & Eaton, J.A. (2016). In the Market for Extinction: eastern and central Java. TRAFFIC. Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia.

    S.C.L. Chng, J.G.H. Lee and C.R. Shepherd. In press. Conservation status, legal protection and enforcement of the Straw-headed Bulbul trade in Singapore. TRAFFIC Bulletin.

    Harris, J.B.C., Green, J.M., Prawiradilaga, D.M., Giam, X., Hikmatullah, D., Putra, C.A. & Wilcove, D.S. (2015). Using market data and expert opinion to identify overexploited species in the wild bird trade. Biol Conserv 187:51-60. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2015.04.009

    Hindricks, F. (2013). Wetlands International surveys Accessed 13 January 2016

    Meijaard, E., Sheil, D., Nasi, R., Augeri, D., Rosenbaum, B., Iskandar, D., Setyawati, T., Lammertink, M., Rachmatika, I., Wong, A., Soehartono, T., Stanley, S. & O’Brien, T. (2005). Life after logging: Reconciling wildlife conservation and production forestry in Indonesian Borneo. CIFOR, Bogor, Indonesia.

    Shepherd, C.R., Sukumaran, J. & Wich, S.A. (2004). Open Season: An analysis of the pet trade in Medan, Sumatra 1997-2001. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

  4. Rob Martin (BirdLife International) says:

    Many thanks for the comments and additional data regarding this worrying situation. This has been complicated in recent years by the captive-breeding network that now exists, obscuring the link between trapping rates from wild populations and birds for sale. The bird is a commodity and traded as such. This provides no disincentive for continued trapping in wild should there be no enforcement, and the facts that sellers openly charge higher prices for wild birds is of concern.
    To focus on the potential criteria under which the species could be listed as Critically Endangered hopefully illustrates why the proposal was for Endangered. The species has a rather short generation length, hence the time frame for any decline (Criterion A) is 10 years. In comparison that for Sumatran Mesia is 15.7 years (and it is 75 years for a Bornean Orangutan). Within regions, declines of Straw-headed Bulbul have clearly been in excess of 80%, but across the whole range during a particular 10-year period it is not clear that they have exceeded this value. The shocking nature of this decline is that the species ought to be a common one, hence it has taken a great deal of effort to cause the substantive declines that have been seen and it has been sustained effort over a long period. But there does not appear to be evidence that the population, globally, has declined in size by 80% since 2006. It was already absent from virtually all of Sumatra, all of Java and was rare or very rare in Kalimantan by that time. There is no suggestion that the species would not be Critically Endangered if the assessment was made at the Indonesian level.
    While it is troubling that the species is still being trapped in Kalimantan, that suggests that it is still, for now, present there. In Malaysian Borneo and Brunei, where some enforcement has been observed there is a clear decline proceeding but records have been made from multiple locations.
    To say that such a species as Straw-headed Bulbul is suspected to be undergoing a population decline in the order of 50-79% globally within a 10 year-period is not downplaying the risk of extinction in the species. Quite the opposite, the species is very obviously at a high risk of global extinction, hence would be considered Endangered.
    The additional information provided above help to make the case that the species is likely to meet Criteria A2d + A3d + A4d for listing as Endangered.

    In order to list the species as Critically Endangered under the population size criterion, C, it would be necessary to demonstrate that the global population was currently under 250 mature individuals. With populations in several large protected areas in Malaysia, additional small numbers still present in Brunei and the remotest parts of Kalimantan, plus the population on Singapore it is believed that the population exceeds this. As outlined above it is thought that the global population may have fallen so far as to contain fewer than 250 mature individuals in each subpopulation, assumed now to be well separated from each other.

  5. Rob Martin (BirdLife International) says:

    Preliminary proposals

    Based on available information, our preliminary proposal for the 2016 Red List would be to adopt the proposed classifications outlined in the initial forum discussion.
    There is now a period for further comments until the final deadline of 28 October, after which the recommended categorisations will be put forward to IUCN.

    Please note that we will then only post final recommended categorisations on forum discussions where these differ from those in the initial proposal.

    The final 2016 Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife and IUCN websites in early December, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN.

  6. Rob Martin (BirdLife International) says:

    Comments have been received from Burung Indonesia (in litt. 2016) supporting the uplisting of this species to Endangered.

  7. Simon Mahood says:

    Surely the Singapore birds don’t count when calculating the rate of population decline and population size, since there is a very large chance that they are derived from escaped cage birds.

  8. Adam Miller says:

    We support our initial movement to uplist this species to CR based on the data presented.

    One fact is to mention the extreme drop in price for captive bred individuals vs wild caught individuals. Therefore, even with limited captive breeding enterprises, this cannot be viewed as a viable solution or replacement for the trade.

    Additionally, is our cross-border trade data. As mentioned in other forums we have found agents bringing 6000+ Magpie robins, White-rumped Shamas, and Greater Green Leafbirds per month from Malaysia to Indonesia. This indicates the extreme decimation of these species in Indonesia, and trappers are now targeting other regions for to satisfy the demand for Indonesian caged birds.

    The Straw Headed Bulbul is undoubtedly the most sought after species in our region based on interviews, price, and demand.

    Continuing with this logic, why then would trappers not be moving large shipments of SH Bulbul across the border? We argue, it is because this species is less common in Malaysia and other areas than we expect.

    From our wild surveys in two large national parks (Gunung Palung and Gunung Niut) in West Kalimantan this species has yet to be found.

    Last week we conducted anecdotal interviews with Kawan Burung Ketapang, an organization of bird hobbyists (not bird owners but bird watchers) in the southern part of West Borneo.

    They have conducted extensive surveys in both Gunung Palung National Park and the surrounding protected areas.

    Their last record of this species in the area was one bird in 2008. As previously mentioned this species “can be found in rural parts of Kalimantan and Borneo” this area would most certainly qualify as rural. Why then has it been absent from surveys for nearly 8 years?

    Continuing with this logic and cross-border trade, we must assume that individuals found in the Indonesian bird trade since this species has been listed as “all but absent from Sumatra and Kalimantan” (2008/2009) are from populations outside Indonesia.

    If trappers are willing to risk confiscation to target Greater Green Leafbirds, Oriental Magpie Robins, and White-rumped Shamas in Malaysian Borneo, they would most certainly be willing to risk confiscation for a species that brings 5-6x the price on the Indonesian bird markets.

    This could be further indication that, without our knowledge, populations outside of Indonesia may have been the target of trappers and fueling the Indonesian-caged bird trade for much of the last 6 years.

    Even if there are small sub-populations outside of Indonesia it is only a matter of time before they are targeted to satisfy the demand for this species, especially since wild caught individuals are of considerably higher demand.

  9. James Westrip (BirdLife) says:

    Recommended categorisation to be put forward to IUCN

    Final decisions were made by BirdLife for this species on 1st November, and the recommended categorisation put forward to IUCN was as described in the preliminary decision.

    Final 2016 Red List categories will be published on the BirdLife and IUCN websites in early December, following further checking of information relevant to the assessments by both BirdLife and IUCN.

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