East Coast hit by wave of exotic escaped caged birds

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A spate of Asiatic bird "refugees" appearing in Britain is thought to be a symptom of a worrying international trade in exotic species.

A spate of Asiatic bird "refugees" appearing in Britain is thought to be a symptom of a worrying international trade in exotic species.

The exotic finches and buntings detected along the coastline are, at this time of year, supposed to be nesting more than 4,000 miles away in north-east Asia. Experts believe the likeliest explanation is that they have escaped from bird markets on the Continent after being transported from China or Russia where the trade is flourishing.

One of the latest arrivals is a chestnut bunting ( Emberiza rutila) at Whitburn, southTyneside. It followed a black-faced bunting ( Emberiza spodocephala) at Spurn Head, east Yorkshire, and a Beavan's bullfinch ( Pyrrhula erythaca) at Landguard Point, Suffolk. Pallas's rosefinches ( Carpodacus roseus) have been seen near Saltfleet, Lincolnshire, and on Fair Isle, Shetland, and a long-tailed rosefinch ( Uragus sibiricus) on the Calf of Man in the Irish Sea.

Richard Millington, of the Bird Information Service, said the sightings of those and other Asiatic birds, such as Chinese grosbeaks ( Eophona migratoria) and Japanese grosbeaks ( Eophona personata), suggested a mass breakout of caged birds. "Ironically, some are long-distance migrants in the Far East, and could possibly fly here naturally after going off course, but for so many species that are popular as caged birds to doso simultaneously suggests escapes," he said.

Lee Evans, founder of the UK400 Club, which represents birders who specialise in rare species, said he also believed they had recently been in captivity but had escaped and were now continuing with their normal migration in a north-westerly pattern. "The point is they may only have spent a few days of their lives behind bars - they are essentially wild birds that have been moved thousands of miles from their natural haunts," said Mr Evans, from Little Chalfont, Buckinghamshire. "They have been caught in large numbers while migrating northwards through China, then brought very rapidly to Western Europe and put on sale in markets in Antwerp and Rotterdam," he said. Those that had escaped and flown across the North Sea to Britain were a fraction of the total. "Many more will spend the rest of their lives behind bars - or died in transit before reaching the markets. The capture of birds migrating through China may be on such a large scale that it could be posing a major threat to wild populations. If things go on like this there may be none left to capture."

A World Conservation Monitoring Centre spokesman agreed the Antwerp or Rotterdam bird markets were likely sources for the recent sightings. "For so many to have appeared, it would seem a large number must have escaped," he said.

Many of the birds captured in China were exported to Russia, then transported by lorry to the Netherlands and Belgium. To establish the numbers involved or the mortality rate and effect on wild populations was difficult.

The chestnut bunting that set up home in Ian Mills's garden in Whitburn attracted more than 150 enthusiasts from all over Britain. Mr Mills, a headteacher, said: "One day I came home from work and there was a group of bird-watchers sitting on my lawn having a picnic. Thinking I was another birder coming to see the bunting, they invited me to join them. When I pointed out it was actually my garden, you should have seen the shocked expressions."