Higher fines for trapping wild birds may not stand up in court

The yellow-tailed oriole is now rare in Costa Rica due to its
demand as a cage bird.

Changes to the new wildlife law currently under revision in the courts add draconian fines for the keeping of wild animals in captivity, which was already illegal. Older laws prohibited trafficking and possession of native species, but tiny fines and grandfather clauses left the law toothless.

There are only a few species of cage birds legal as pets. These are the ones on display in respectable pet shops, and for the most part fully domesticated, with different color lines for example. The best known is the common canary. Others are budgerigars in both blue and green phases and cockatiels more or less resembling the original stock. Both of these are small parrots of Australian origin. The others legal species most often seen are zebra finches and the occasional other estrilldid finch. These are originally from Australia and southeast Asia.

Costa Ricans have a long history of keeping birds as pets, and this has had an impact on a number of popular species. The most vulnerable are large parrots, particularly the scarlet macaw and yellow-naped parrot. They nest in tree cavities, which are readily robbed year after year; even worse, sometimes the tree is cut with the loss of the hole, which is a more important resource to the population than are the individuals lost. The arrival of Africanized honey bees over the last 30 years or so also resulted in competition for cavities.

Baby parrots are helpless but can be readily hand-raised, their varied diet relatively easy to reproduce. These individuals can become quite acclimated and even affectionate with particular humans, especially the smaller species like orange-fronted and orange-chinned parakeets. The latter bears a substantial resemblance to green budgies.

The crimson-fronted parakeet so evident around the Central Valley at certain times of the year is essentially never seen in cages.

Several fruit eaters known as singers are kept as pets also. Territorial songbirds are usually captured by putting a singer in a cage with a large number of monofilament nooses on the top which eventually snare the territory owner when he comes to expel the intruder. Extraction from protected areas is a threat especially to the black-faced solitaire or jilguero, a species of thrush that is gray with an orange bill. It has a fluty song described in the original “Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch “exquisitely beautiful in its natural surroundings but often harsh and jarring” when indoors.

Another singer seriously threatened by trafficking is the yellow-tailed oriole, which has a sweet whistled song in addition to pretty black-and-yellow plumage. Orioles are generally called chorcha in this country. It was formerly common throughout the Caribbean lowlands but quite scarce now, even though its habitat of thickets and brush is not as reduced as some original habitats.

Fruit eaters do not adapt as easily to a captive diet as seed eaters in the broad sense, which not coincidentally all the domestic species are. A few tanagers which are also fruit eaters do occasionally show up in cages.

The most persecuted of the numerous emberizid finches in Costa Rica is the white-collared seedeater, traditionally called gallito. This small black-and-white bird with a warbling song has been essentially eliminated from populated areas like the Central Valley where it was once widespread. It is a favorite target of amateur bird catchers. Also at times called gallito is the yellow-faced grassquit, which is olive and sings only a little trill.

Two other species of fringilid finches are also impacted by cage bird trafficking, the lesser goldfinch and the yellow-bellied siskin. These are black and yellow birds with no songs to speak of.

Fines for possession differ according to the status of the species. Those “endangered or with reduced numbers” are subject to a fine of two to four base salaries or $1,400 to $2,800. “Reduced numbers” isn’t defined in the law, but would presumably be what is usually referred to as declining.

Neither does the status refer specifically to Costa Rica. All these species have solid populations elsewhere with the exception of the yellow-naped parrot. It is under heavy pressure from the pet trade in its restricted Central American range, even more so elsewhere than in Costa Rica, as it is considered a good talker. Even the scarlet macaw has a vast range in Amazonia, and despite being eliminated from most of its old Middle American range, is considered “least concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Of the species here, all are falling in numbers in Costa Rica except the orange-chinned parakeet and the yellow-faced grassquit, which are thriving in human-altered habitats. The fine for those species is just one-half up to two base salaries, or $350 to $1,400. The law dictates confiscation in any case.

These fines would likely be subject to the same appeals that resulted in similar amounts being declared disproportionate by the Sala IV constitutional court when the new traffic law took effect. Given that some fines for conduct potentially endangering other people were less than those detailed here, this aspect of the new wildlife law is even less likely to stand up to scrutiny.

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