News Release

New study finds uniquely colored songbirds are at greater risk of extinction

Embargoed until 06.00 BST, Thursday, 15 September 2022

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Durham University

-With pictures-

Bioscientists from Durham University, UK, University of Florida, USA, Centre for the Synthesis and Analysis of Biodiversity (CESAB), France, and Massey University, New Zealand found that brightly and uniquely coloured songbirds are in greater danger of extinction and are more likely to be traded as pets.

The researchers made predictions of species not yet traded but of high likelihood of future trade based on the association of colour with human decisions to select species for trade.

The researchers were able to explore whether colour is associated with the trade of songbirds as pets, and the potential impact of trade on individual species and the colour palettes to which they contribute by combining global databases of songbird plumage colour, geographic range, extinction risk and prevalence in the pet trade.

Lead author of the study, Dr Rebecca Senior of Durham University, said: “For better or worse, aesthetic value is important to people. This can be a good thing, because it motivates people to care about and fund conservation efforts, but it can also be harmful when it motivates other people to want to trap and own those species.

“Trade can be done sustainably, but we haven’t done a good job of that so far and time is already running out for many wild populations. It’s not just about losing beautiful species, it’s about continued erosion of biodiversity and, with that, all of the amazing things that nature provides.”

The full study has been published in the journal Current Biology.

Birds with certain colour hues, like azure and yellow, are especially common in the trade, and trade also seems to target clusters of closely related species.

Songbirds (passerines) are highly sought after in the pet trade, particularly for their beautiful songs. However, songbirds can also be remarkably colourful – a highly desirable trait in other commonly traded species, such as parrots.

Hotspots of songbird colour diversity and uniqueness are concentrated in the tropics. The researchers predict that 478 additional species are likely targets for future trade.

The study team were surprised to discover that pure white appears to be a unique colour that is highly desirable. They were also impressed by the strength of the latitudinal gradient colour diversity, which remains even after correcting for the greater number of species in the tropics.

The researchers stress the importance of understanding what motivates traders to target particular at-risk species and suggest trading of these birds must be proactively regulated to minimise risk to wild populations.

The loss of traded and threatened species is expected to mute nature’s colour palette, with potential knock-on effects for ecotourism and conservation support through the loss of flagship species.


Media Information

Dr Rebecca Senior is available for interview and can be contacted on or +44(0) 780 088 1430.

Alternatively, please contact Durham University Communications Office for interview requests on

Source information

Wildlife trade targets colourful birds and threatens the aesthetic value of nature, (2022), R. Senior, B. Oliveira, J. Dale & B. Scheffers, Current Biology.

An embargoed copy of the paper is available from Durham University Communications Office. Please email

Full paper can be accessed here when the embargo lifts:


Associated images are available via the following link:

There are two folders, named according to the photographers and with photos named by species:

Rick-Stanley_Gabby-Salazar = photos by Rick Stanley ( and Gabby Salazar (

  • Black-winged myna (Acridotheres-melanopterus); Endangered
  • Common hill myna (Gracula-religiosa); Least Concern; color uniqueness score of 66.9
  • Javan banded pitta (Hydrornis guajanus); Least Concern; color uniqueness score of 58

Zhikai-Liao = photos by Zhikai Liao (

  • Bornean green magpie (Cissa thalassina); Critically Endangered; color uniqueness score of 42.5
  • Fairy pitta (Pitta nympha); Vulnerable; color uniqueness score of 45.9
  • Fujian niltava (Niltava davidi); Least Concern; color uniqueness score of 36.1
  • Indigo flycatcher (Eumyias indigo); Least Concern; color uniqueness score of 93
  • Scarlet finch (Carpodacus sipahi); Least Concern; color uniqueness score of 55.8

Useful Web Links 

Dr Rebecca Senior staff profile:

Dr Rebecca Senior personal website:

Department of Biosciences:

About Durham University

Durham University is a globally outstanding centre of teaching and research based in historic Durham City in the UK.

We are a collegiate university committed to inspiring our people to do outstanding things at Durham and in the world.

We conduct boundary-breaking research that improves lives globally and we are ranked as a world top 100 university with an international reputation in research and education (QS World University Rankings 2022).

We are a member of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive UK universities and we are consistently ranked as a top 10 university in national league tables (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide, Guardian University Guide and The Complete University Guide).

For more information about Durham University visit:

END OF MEDIA RELEASE – issued by Durham University Communications Office.

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