All heaven in a rage: Hong Kong’s troubling wild bird market
Updated: Sep 16
May 2020's issue of Birdwatch magazine carries a double-page photo spread of one of my own photographs from a visit to Hong Kong in November 2019 showing captive Siberian Rubythroats in the Yuen Po Bird Garden, a street market selling both wild and captive-bred cagebirds. It has an edited version of the accompanying text I wrote for the image, so I've published the complete version below along with a larger number of the photos I took there.
I suspect that some of the photos may be distressing for some, so treat this introduction as a trigger warning. A pdf of the magazine piece is directly below, followed by supplementary images and captions. Make sure you check out the magazine's website – it's always worth a read.
At the end of a birding stopover in Hong Kong, I had a morning spare to wander around the city’s Kowloon district. One of the area’s attractions is the Hong Kong Bird Market, situated in a pleasant leafy area away from the main drag.
Alongside the usual varicoloured canaries and budgies, the contents of some of the cages were a little more surprising and worrying. I had seen a few surreptitious wintering Siberian Rubythroats in the New Territories but was now watching 25 of them at close quarters – unfortunately while they perched silently in bamboo cages hung from the trees and railings.
It wasn’t just these gaudy nightingales behind bars – there were some local South-east Asian specialities plus Siberian Blue Robins, Bluethroats, Siberian Stonechats and even a Whinchat battened inside, sporadically but feebly singing, battering their wings and bodies against varnished bamboo walls or squatting or dragging their tails in their own droppings.
Keeping cagebirds remains a popular pastime in Hong Kong but the Special Administrative Region is also a hub for the illegal wildlife trade. The range of species present in the market during my visit certainly indicated a level of illegality: species such as Isabelline Wheatear are unknown in Hong Kong, while several regular migrant species were also present.
While I was able to sneak a number of pictures on my phone, photography was absolutely banned from the nearby fish and reptile market – probably for good reason, to judge by the numbers of likely illegally imported and sold species present there. The contents of some apparently occupied bird cages were obscured by canvas blinds and it was difficult not to wonder whether they contained more ‘interesting’ tenants.
It was obvious that many of these birds were captured in the wild. An estimated 100,000 wild birds are traded in the region every year, mostly caught in Indonesia and China. To sell them in Hong Kong is ostensibly illegal but they are on open display in the market – the going rate for a Siberian Rubythroat was HK$600 (about £60), while a Siberian Blue Robin went for HK$500; the bog-standard Japanese White-eye was yours for a tenner.
One hopes that a productive side effect of the proposed tighter post COVID-19 regulations on wildlife trading in China might be to thwart such ecological banditry. None of the species I saw were listed as Endangered by BirdLife International but the overall numbers involved in the Hong Kong trade clearly must have a detrimental effect.
Just before flying to Hong Kong, I had gone to the exhibition of William Blake’s works in London, at the Tate Britain. His lines from Auguries of Innocence still ring as loud as ever: “A Robin Red breast in a Cage/Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”
ADMCF. 2019. Trading in Extinction: the Dark Side of Hong Kong’s Wildlife Trade. ADMCF, Hong Kong.
Viney, C, Philipps, K and Chiu Ying, L. 2005. The Birds of Hong Kong and South China. HKBWS, Hong Kong.
Red-spotted Bluethroat is a fairly frequent winter visitor to Hong Kong but should really have some reeds and bushes around its wetland habitat.
I saw several Siberian Rubythroats in the New Territories in various habitats and the species – though incredibly rare in the UK – is a common passage migrant and winter visitor.
Siberian Rubythroat was a remarkably popular cage bird, making up the most numbers apart from Japanese White-eye and Oriental Magpie-robin on the day I visited – perhaps the trapping of migrants had been particularly productive in autumn 2019?
Siberian Blue Robin is a much-desired vagrant to Britain, with the striking male a particularly exciting prospect – there were several for sale in the bird market.
The lack of primary projection on this lark makes this an Oriental Skylark, I think – a fairly regular wintering species in Hong Kong. I missed this in the wild, but came across the rarer (in a local context) Eurasian Skylark in Long Valley.
Sixty quid and a Siberian Rubythroat is yours, more's the pity.
A single Isabelline Wheatear – unknown in Hong Kong – was a bit of a surprise in the market but showed the extent of source areas for some of the (probably illegal) wild bird imports.
I didn't have the nerve to sneak a look under the covers, but these cages were certainly occupied by avian captives.
Japanese White-eye is one of the commonest songbirds in wild Hong Kong, as well as in the bird market.
This Blue-throated Flycatcher (most likely imported from mainland China by its range) illustrates the poor conditions many of the birds are kept in with its worn and dilapidated wing and tail feathers.
Yellow-browed Bunting is still fairly common in its central Siberian breeding range but a scarce winter visitor in Hong Kong. One has to wonder how prevalent trapping is in the surrounding countryside – we saw no evidence of this while birding several sites intensely, so perhaps these birds are imported, too.
Another species I missed seeing in the wild was White-throated Rock Thrush, a rare winter visitor to Hong Kong.
The irruptive Japanese Waxwing is very rare in Hong Kong, so this somewhat miserable group of four (I hesitate to say 'flock') would have been very welcome in the wild nearby.
By now, I was really racking up the species I'd been unable to see during two hard days habitat bashing – another was Hainan Blue Flycatcher, which is uncommon in Hong Kong in summer and rare in winter.
Two more species clearly captured in the wild were Golden-fronted Leafbird (top) – not found near Hong Kong – and Verditer Flycatcher (bottom), which is only a scarce winter visitor to the region.