Danger of Beauty
By EDUARDO E. IÑIGO-ELIAS, KENNETH V. ROSENBERG, AND
JEFFREY V. WELLS
Thousands of Painted Buntings are trapped each year for Mexico's
international caged bird trade
|In this market in Mexico
City, a "pajarero," or registered bird dealer, can
legally sell wild-caught birds such as Green Parakeet (top
cage) and Northern Cardinal (second cage from top). Selling
birds of prey, such as the young Roadside Hawk perched on
top of the cages, is illegal.
Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias
As early as 1841, John James Audubon described how thousands of
male Painted Buntings (Passerina ciris
) were trapped in the
southeastern United States. These strikingly beautiful birds were
shipped from New Orleans to supply the caged bird trade in Europe,
where they were sold for more than 100 times the price they garnered
in the United States.
Today, the story is not very different. Although trapping native
birds in the United States is illegal, Painted Buntings, with their
brilliant blue, green, and red hues, are still trapped by the thousands
on their wintering grounds in several Latin American and Caribbean
countries, including Mexico and Cuba. They are sold in local markets
as well as internationally, where buyers in the Asian and European
markets pay $70 a pair.
The Conservation Science Program at the Lab of Ornithology and Audubon's
science department are working together to assess the impact of
the live bird trade on declining wild populations of Painted Buntings
shared by the United States and Mexico. We are also helping biologists
and decision makers in both countries to understand the conservation
status of Painted Buntings.
Our preliminary data analysis shows that for the domestic trade
in Mexico alone, more than 100,000 Painted Buntings were trapped
from 1984 through 2000, an average of 5,800 birds per year. This
does not include any information on the illegal trade, which is
commonplace but very difficult to document.
The international trade in live-caught birds was banned in Mexico
from 1982 through 1999. However, after the ban was lifted, Mexico
exported more than 6,000 Painted Buntings to Belgium, Italy, Germany,
the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, and Japan during 2000 and 2001.
The Mexican government regulated the harvesting of Painted Buntings
from 1984 until 2000, under the "Song and Ornate Bird Harvesting
Calendar," a system that set the trapping dates and numbers
of birds that could be harvested in each state every season. However,
those harvesting quotas were set without sound scientific data,
such as demographic and productivity parameters. Current harvesting
quotas are not based on reliable data either.
|The Painted Bunting is protected
in the United States, but elsewhere it is still trapped, then
sold as a caged bird.
Breeding Bird Survey data show that Painted Buntings declined by
2.7 percent per year in the United States from 1966 to 2000 (see
Figure 1). The species is on the Partners in Flight and National
Audubon Society WatchList, an early-warning system that focuses
attention on at-risk North American bird species.
Because male Painted Buntings are so colorful, they are trapped
more often than females for the caged bird trade. Males are also
easier to trap because they are very territorial. Both breeders
and migrants are captured year-round using traps with as many as
eight compartments and a lure bird in a central or lower compartment.
Trappers use mist nets during migration and winter, when adult males,
females, and juveniles are trapped indiscriminately.
The Lab and Audubon have notified the United States and Mexican
governments of the need to assess the potential impact of harvesting
Painted Buntings for domestic and international trade. At the 2002
meeting of the Trilateral Committee for Wildlife and Ecosystems
Conservation and Management, governments from both countries discussed
setting up a joint assessment task force.
The Lab, with the support of Trade Records Analysis of Flora and
Fauna in Commerce (TRAFFIC North America), is assessing the bird
trade in Mexico and the potential implications for resident and
Neotropical migrants. The work involves collaborating with academic
institutions and government agencies in both countries.
We are also working to permanently establish the Breeding Bird Survey
in Mexico to monitor populations of Painted Buntings and other birds.
This work involves collaboration with the Patuxent Wildlife Research
Center and Mexican partners such as the Mexican program of the North
American Bird Conservation Initiative at the National Commission
for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity (CONABIO). Finally, with
anticipated funding, we plan to initiate a new citizen-science project
similar to the Cerulean and Golden-winged Warbler Atlas projects
that will help identify important bird habitats for Painted Buntings
throughout their range.
|Figure 1. Painted Bunting population trends
1966-1996, from the U.S.
Breeding Bird Survey. Note significant declines in regions
such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina,
Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.
"Without an Equal"
Two populations in need of protection
To the French, the Painted Bunting is known
as "non-pareil"-"without an equal"-referring
to the bright blue, green, and scarlet colors of the male.
Females are primarily yellowish-green.
The Painted Bunting (Passerina ciris) is a Neotropical
migrant that breeds in two distinct geographic regions in
the United States and Mexico (see Figure 1). Although individuals
from the larger western population (P. c. pallidior)
and smaller eastern population (P. c. ciris) are
not distinguishable in the field, the differences in molt
timing, migration routes, and morphology have led to suggestions
that the two isolated populations may actually represent
two distinct species.
Both males and females in the western population are longer,
weigh more, and have longer wings and tails than the eastern
birds. The eastern population molts on the breeding grounds
just before migrating to south Florida and the Caribbean
islands. The western population migrates first to "staging
areas" in the southwestern United States and northwestern
Mexico before continuing farther south to wintering grounds
in southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador,
Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama. This is a peculiar molt-migration
pattern that is more common in nonpasserines but poorly
documented in passerine birds such as the Painted Bunting.
The eastern population has declined precipitously since
1966, according to the Breeding Bird Survey, and the species
is listed as one of the highest priorities for conservation
in Florida and the southeastern coastal plain. The larger
western population is less threatened. It is this western
population, however, that is subject to trapping for the
bird trade in Mexico, and declines have been noted in recent
years close to the Mexican border in Texas. Whether trapping
in Mexico has a direct effect on migratory buntings from
Texas is a critical focus of our current research efforts.
- Eduardo E. Iñigo-Elias, Kenneth
and Jeffrey V. Wells
How you can help
Get involved in citizen science. Volunteers are crucial
to the success of programs that monitor Painted Buntings and
other bird species. For example, changes in the numbers and
distribution of wintering Painted Buntings can be followed
using data from the Christmas
Bird Count and Project FeederWatch. Percentage of FeederWatchers
reporting Painted Buntings at feeders: Florida, 6 percent
(n=135); Georgia, 0.6 percent (n=175), Louisiana 2.9 percent
(n=35), South Carolina 1 percent (n=93). To join Project FeederWatch,
see page 12.
Help identify important bird habitats in your region.
National Audubon's Important
Bird Area program is identifying and conserving key areas
that support Painted Buntings and other species.
Support our work at the Lab and habitat conservation
efforts through state agencies or conservation groups such
as Audubon, The Nature Conservancy, and the World Wildlife
guidelines for a healthy backyard.
citation: Iñigo-Elias, Eduardo E.,Kenneth V. Rosenberg,
and Jefferey V. Wells. The Danger of Beauty. Birdscope, newsletter
of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Summer 2002. <www.birds.cornell.edu>
For permission to reprint all or
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