Matching Trees and Birds… A naturalist’s response

David Ee’s piece on “Matching Trees and Birds” appeared on 6th October 2012 in The Straits Times. It referred to the need for a Bird-Plant Catalogue LINK, a PDF copy of the article can be obtained HERE under “Related Documents”.

The welcome publicity caught the attention of traditional birdwatchers, resulting in the letter below that appeared in the paper’s Forum Page of 16th October.

Below is BESG’s rebuttal that appeared in The Straits Times Online Forum on 20th October 2012, entitled “City in a garden? Yes, we can…”

“I THANK Mr Chia Yong Soong (“What works in the forest may not work in a garden”; Tuesday) for his interest in the Bird Ecology Study Group’s list of plants and the birds they attract (“Matching trees and birds”; Oct 6).

“I would like to reiterate that it is a list compiled from seven years of contributions by birdwatchers interested in bird behaviour. As in any list, it is just a guide that planners need to use with prudence and care. Having said that, let me go into specifics.

“The common mahang is a tree of disturbed forests and forest edge, not of the rainforest proper. As such, the birds it attracts need not necessarily be exclusively forest species.

“In any case, our extensive park connectors can grow this tree, thus allowing for easy movement of woodland birds into parks that grow the tree.

“The tree will also attract urban birds like the yellow-vented bulbul, scarlet-backed flowerpecker and brown-throated sunbird that feed on the nectar and fruits. So there is always the possibility that it will attract more than the 20 species of birds that we document.

“Another concern of the writer is the possibility of the tree being used as a roosting site for starlings and mynahs. Birds roost in trees with dense canopies that are grown near food centres and in areas surrounded by tall buildings. Trees in such locations provide some shelter from the weather as well as from predators. So, it is not the species of the tree but where it is grown that attracts roosting birds.

“For example, the angsana, a favourite roosting tree along Orchard Road, when grown away from tall buildings, is mostly devoid of roosting birds.

“As to the ants scare, the common mahang harbours tiny, harmless ants that live within the hollows of young shoots. These ants mostly emerge when we roughly handle these shoots, and even then they do not swarm over our hands nor drop on to people standing below the tree.

“The statement that lizards and butterflies have their own niches and are not readily adapted to an unfamiliar habitat is a fallacy. In the case of native species, given the food source, they will definitely be around. In the case of exotic species, many that arrived became more successful than the local species. An excellent example here is the changeable lizard that is native to countries as far south as the northern states of Peninsular Malaysia.

“It was introduced into this country and is currently found all over our urban parks and gardens.

“And many of our roadside plants have been introduced from faraway countries and have since adapted to our local conditions and are attracting their complement of local bird and other faunal species.

“Singaporeans have, through the years, come to appreciate nature. However, many have yet to have an emotional connect with nature in our Garden City.

“There are still people who demand that a tree be cut if its branches grow near their windows for fear of insects moving into their homes.

“And I have even met many children who panic when a butterfly flutters near them.

“We need to work towards exposing our children, not to mention adults, to the wonders of the biodiversity in our Garden City, otherwise they may not appreciate it when we fully become a City in a Garden.”

Wee Yeow Chin (Dr)
Bird Ecology Study Group

Comment: We would like to invite Mr Chia Yong Soong to visit this website regularly to reinforce his knowledge of bird behaviour and to participate more in nature walks, not necessarily bird walks that just look at birds but not their behaviour. Joining nature walks conducted by NParks, or even by the Nature Society, would help him appreciate and understand nature more and possible remove his apprehension of certain aspects like ants falling from trees and other fears.

12 Responses

  1. Kim Mosabe

    “A little learning is a dangerous thing….”

  2. Lim Swee Im (Datin Dr)

    Wee. We dream of both Singapore & Malaysia of the future to have more people appreciate & embrace the joys & biodiversity of nature. Urbanised people are becoming more afraid of nature & prefer to live in sterile environments. Our urbanised world is fast losing our intimate & inseparable connection to the earth & ground . Value your continual good work to raise the level of awareness & knowledge of society. Thanks. Im & Amar, Ipoh

    • Thanks for the support, Swee Im and Amar. The mention of ants falling from trees on to people below reminds me of the story I related at an MNS conference about 20 years ago where I mentioned a lady who instinctively stepped on a large forest ant when out on a nature walk. Obviously things have not changed in Singapore since then:

      Wee, Y. C., 1992. Singapore? In harmony with nature? In: Yap, S. K. & S. W. Lee (eds.), Proceeding of the International Conference on Tropical Diversity, In Harmony with Nature. Malayan Nature Society, Kuala Lumpur. Pp. 528-533.

  3. Whenever I stop to examine roadside plants in cities (not just in Singapore), I get strange looks from people. This never happens when I’m in the countryside. It seems to me as if talking about flora and fauna is not “hip” among the young crowd and they would rather discuss things like the latest iPhone and what-not. This is really sad. If Singapore becomes any more of a concrete jungle than it already is, I am definitely migrating.

    • I suppose if the tree is in flowers or fruits, there would be less strange looks. Why not try pointing at the crown and see whether these curious people will join you looking for something among the leaves?

  4. […] to our urban environment, local birdwatchers, even seasoned ones, were not supportive – see HERE and […]

  5. […] knowledge on the flora and fauna is generally biased, if not totally inaccurate – see HERE and […]

  6. […] So it is not just the species of trees that attract roosting birds but where they are planted. But then how many people are aware of this? Very few, and not even experienced birdwatchers from the Nature Society, who have been leading newbie’s on bird walks LINK. […]

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  8. I have no doubt BESG is doing wonderful work in its field, going by several articles I have enjoyed reading on their site. But it should learn to take comments and criticisms by others in the right spirit and refrain from being bitchy, as in the case of this ‘rebuttal’ to the seemingly legitimate concerns and opinions of Mr Chia Yong Soong. Why not respond positively and appreciatively than ‘rebut’. BESG’s ‘invitation to Mr Soong to learn (apparently from its own master birders!) sounds like cheap sarcasm.

  9. Hi Alt, thanks for your input. One needs to know the background. BESG was once an activity group together with the older Bird Group (BG) of the Nature Society (Singapore). However, the Bird Group felt threatened by a rival group dealing with birds (they were then top dogs) and we never got along. Eventually BESG broke off. However, the rivalry continued. Whenever there were publicity on BESG in the print media (and the above was not the first), there would always be one or more BG agents writing to criticise. Unfortunately these agents without fail made a fool of themselves, giving us an opportunity to rebut. As time went on newer BG agents were sent to the front. Unfortunately these people were less and less knowledgeable, giving us further opportunities to rebut harder… Not to worry, we can easily recognise the genuine from the “fake”.

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