“I like animals and nature in general, even though there is at least one visitor to this website who questions this.
“My postings on the failed nesting attempts of Yellow-Vented Bulbuls (Pycnonotus goiavier) (above) in my garden drew mixed comments, ranging from outright condemnation to a heartfelt appeal for me to help ensure that the next nesting is successful LINK. My discussions on the general price of birds in the trade drew flak, even though I believe that such information is useful for all involved in nature conservation.
“I promised to state my case, but had to leave at short notice on a fairly long trip. Now that I am back, I will take advantage of my position as a retiree who no longer has to worry about social standing or career development to give my not necessarily politically correct views on why I interact with Nature the way I do.
“I am a true, fifth-generation Singaporean, and share our founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew’s belief in Pragmatism, though, apart from our surnames, these are among the very few things that we share.
“In working life, I used to believe in having the strength to change the things that could be changed, the fortitude to bear with those that could not be changed, and prayed for the sense to know the difference between the two.
“This philosophy has guided me in interacting with with Nature, in the areas of: (1) Providing habitat and supplementary feeding; (2) My other pets; (3) Pet keeping, the Pet Trade, and release of birds; (4) Captive breeding; (5) Hunting and fishing: and (6) Interaction with the Media and the Authorities.
“I hope my views (which you may not agree with) will stir thoughts and elicit comments – but let’s please try to keep the discussion civil.
1. Providing habitat and supplementary feeding
“The biological carrying capacity of any area can be increased through human action. In areas under my control, I grow food plants, provide cover, and supply supplementary feeding.
“Supplementary feeding is controversial. Some people believe that wildlife should not be fed. I disagree. If done in a responsible and consistent manner, it increases the amount of wildlife an area can support. It will attract species that do not normally frequent an area. I put out food for waterhens and doves. There are noticeably more in my area than elsewhere.
“I also set out deliberately to attract kingfishers by having several ponds in my garden. I breed tropical fish as a hobby, and those not suitable as future breeding stock end up in these ponds. The various gouramis grow into quite attractive display fish that can hold their own against predators, if the kingfishers don’t get them before they grow too big to be eaten. I don’t feel too sad when the kingfishers help themselves, because kingfishers have to eat too.
“What are the downsides of supplementary feeding? When birds are fed, have consideration for the neighbours. Birds poop. They do so when hanging around waiting to be fed, and also after they are fed. Keep the feeding areas as far away from the neighbours as you can, and make sure that bird perches are nowhere close to places that can annoy anyone. OK, I admit it may not be easy for everyone, but please make the effort not to create bird hating neighbours if you want to feed wild birds.
“Luckily, both my present home, and the previous one, were the last houses on their respective roads, with no other houses on three sides.
“Also, the feeding of pigeons is illegal in Singapore. If pigeons come, try to chase them away, move the feeding station to a location that they would not visit, or change to a type of food that they would not eat.
“Make sure that the feeding station is located in an area with good all-round visibility so that cats cannot sneak up on the birds. Once committed to feeding birds, you have to be consistent. If they breed, and the population builds up to the extent that they require supplementary feeding, you cannot suddenly cut off their supply. So, even if you have to go away, ensure that someone else feeds the wild birds, as you would with any house pet.
“And please, do not encourage birds to become too tame. Enjoying the company of very trusting birds, it was a mistake I used to make. Now I just put the food down and step back.
“Yes, the neighbourhood brats take swipes at birds that come readily to the hand, while poachers still exist, and will help themselves to species with commercial value such as Zebra Doves (Geopelia striata), Spotted Doves (Streptopelia chinensis) and of course, Oriental Magpie-robins (Copsychus saularis) (above).
“When the carrying capacity of an area is increased, there may be increased mortality through interspecific squabbles, or predation by cats. There are such losses, and also more losses to sparrowhawks. But I think that the overall increase in the bird population achieved by pro-active management outweighs the losses.
“Coming to the specific subject of Yellow-Vented Bulbuls, I have spelt out in great detail on this website how much trouble is required to hand raise one fledgling LINK. I did not intervene to help ensure success even though the one pair that I observed had five failed nesting attempts.
“However, I would have done everything possible to have ensured the successful nesting of a bird species on CITES Appendix 1 or the Red List, just as the Prime Minister said that he would roll out the red carpet to attract billionaires to settle in Singapore. But as far as YVB are concerned, there are lots of them, and not enough resources on my part. I have other things to do in life outside of aviculture.
2. My other pets
“My cats have been accused of being the introduced predators that take a toll on innocent wildlife. This is a totally ill-informed and irrelevant argument in the Singapore context. You cannot transpose what applies to New Zealand or other island habitats to conditions here. Yes, I have just been to a kiwi breeding station near Rotorua where the staff highlighted how introduced predators decimated island bird populations. Kiwis evolved without predators for hundreds of years, and had no fear at all of other land animals.
“This is absolutely not the case in Singapore. Right here, I have encountered civet cats, leopard cats, bear cats, macaque monkeys, squirrels, monitor lizards, pythons and a whole gamut of other bird-eating snakes. Our local birds are well-adapted to look out for predators. And our local authorities are re-introducing hornbills – which as everyone knows, prey on small birds LINK. As do visiting hawks during the temperate-country winter months.
“In my own house, besides the cats, wild birds also have to look out for squirrels and a couple of large monitor lizards that visit quite frequently. There are also pythons of fairly substantial proportions in the neighbourhood. These do not confine themselves to eating birds. One of my own cats ended up inside a python just three years ago.
“Why do I let my cats run loose? They are happier. And if my big tomcat was not staking out this neighbourhood, the dozen or so cats living in the shophouses down the road would move in and hunt the birds too. As anyone who knows wildlife management will tell you, predators claim territory. So, I would rather have my cat than someone else’s cat in my garden.
3. Pet keeping, the Pet Trade and release of birds
“Yes, I am an aviculturalist. No, I do not entirely approve of the way in which the present trade in pet birds is conducted. In an ideal world, I would love to have free-living birds that come to visit my feeding stations and claim my garden as their territory, using it as their breeding ground. In the real world, the neighbourhood brats knock my parrots and mynahs about and chase the wild egrets, herons and waterhens that are attracted to the water bodies in my garden. I am sure that if I had allowed my tame shamas, magpie robins and Zebra Doves to fly freely, they would have been stolen. Some tame magpie robins disappeared.
“Though there is disagreement on this matter, I do release surplus birds if they are of native species. Some do not settle down well in captivity. Some species that I had never kept before turned out to be too much trouble or unsuitable as pets. And some, like Spotted Doves and Zebra Doves are too downright prolific. I couldn’t raise all the babies, and not all were good singers.
“There were also times when I would buy about half-a-dozen baby birds, and when they grew up, find that the sex ratios were unbalanced. The excess number, that did not match up into pairs, I released.
“When releasing birds, make sure that they are in tip-top health, and not tame. Never buy a bird, find that it appears unwell, then release it. You could be spreading disease into the wild population.
“All the birds that I released had been in my aviaries for some time, and were in good health.
“Wild-caught Long-tailed Parakeets (Psittacula longicauda) make lousy pets (above). They never settle down with people, do not sing, and are skittish. Straw-headed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) are also very, very suspicious of people and dash around madly whenever anyone approaches their cages. Some are indifferent singers. Releasing such birds, as I have done, is absolutely no problem. Take them to a suitable habitat, (or in my case, since there used to be secondary jungle next door, just open the cage), and they shoot straight off, I hope, well able to fend for themselves.
“Releasing doves and munias is also easy. Even though these may have been aviary-bred, most seed-eaters are never really tame, and do not readily come to hand. The chances of them being re-captured is not that great.
“With softbills, that become really tame, release is a problem. You had best make some arrangement with the Bird Park or other organisation to arrange this. Remember, without official clearance, it is technically an offence to bring wildlife into the Nature Reserves for release.
“And, much as you might love re-introducing wildlife, sometimes, one has to draw the line. A friend who has a prolific colony of Red Junglefowl (Gallus gallus) has offered me chicks. I have regretfully declined. A free-living junglefowl colony would be wonderful in my house, which is adjacent to grassland and secondary forest. But the neighbours would not be amused by vigourous digging in their flower beds. Not everyone would be happy with loud crowing early every morning. And the kindergarten administration round the corner, which feared Bird Flu so much and complained constantly until one of my neighbours got rid of her free-ranging bantams, would certainly raise the roof if I brought junglefowl to roost on it.
“Why do I still participate in the pet trade, despite the atrocious conditions under which most birds are sold? The reason is because there is no alternative. I have served three tours of duty as a manager in less developed countries in ASEAN. On weekends I have had first-hand opportunity to witness the total devastation of the avian population. In other ASEAN countries, apart from enclaves set aside especially for tourists, there are fewer birds in urban, suburban and agricultural areas than you will find in Singapore.
“In neighbouring countries birds are trapped for food and for the trade. True, laws may exist to forbid this, but the laws are hardly ever enforced. According to last month’s issue of ‘National Geographic’ magazine, this is also the case in European countries outside of the UK, Germany and Switzerland. In such a situation, I think that the birds have a better chance in my hands than living next to man in their native countries. And my objective has always been captive breeding.
4. Captive breeding
“As I said earlier, I would love to have birds breed freely in the wild, but in real life, this is often a futile exercise. The alternative is captive breeding, with the hope that some day, there will be sufficient well-protected areas to support a viable population of re-introduced birds. As a fish-keeper, I know that, even though there are thousands on fish farms, many popular aquarium species are extinct or highly endangered in the wild. Examples are Balantocheilos melanopterus (Silver shark) Epalzeorhynchus bicolor (Red-tailed shark) and Tanichthys albinobes (White Cloud Mountain Minnow). It appears that Chromobotia macracantha (Clown loach) is headed the same way.
“The situation is in some ways the same with birds. In Singapore, I think that there are more captive-bred shamas and Zebra Doves than there are wild ones. This is also the case with Java Sparrows (Padda oryzivora) (above). And, although they are all escapees from the pet trade and now wild, I have seen far more Javan Mynas (Acridotheres javanicus) and Tanibar Corellas (Cacatua goffini) flying free here than I ever did during all my months as a manager in Indonesia.
“Establishing a breeding population, whether in aviaries or feral, outside of an area where a species is endangered is a viable means of preventing extinction. And, without a bird trade, there is no means of establishing such a population. Which is why, despite all its faults, I still buy birds from the trade and try my hand at captive breeding.
“Also, while some may disapprove, and quote the morbid joke that for kids, a pet bird is for burying, I do believe that exposure to responsible pet bird keeping when a child is at least in the teens can engender an interest in birds that will lead to field ornithology. As far as I know, I am from the third generation in my family to keep birds, and my grown-up nephews are equally keen. My six-year-old grand-nephew seems to be showing some interest.
5. Hunting and fishing
“This may appear extremely paradoxical, but sport hunters and fishermen can be the best allies of conservationists. More than fifty years ago, my interest in the outdoors was enhanced when, as a teenager, I accompanied my uncles and my older neighbours on hunting and fishing trips. Shooting game was perfectly legal in Singapore back then. All of us loved the outdoors, and we learned to read nature rather well. When the government withdrew all private gun licenses in Singapore, some of us continued to hike in the jungles because those were the places that we enjoyed. And, through this liking, we wanted as many green areas as possible preserved.
“From what I learned during my visits to the USA, hunting and fishing groups are among the strongest supporters of nature conservation there. In India, where I was recently, many of the best current game reserves were once the private hunting grounds of the Maharajahs.
“By enlisting the help of other groups with the same objectives, nature lovers can leverage more effectively on the authorities to preserve green areas. The objectives of responsible hunters and fishermen do not always conflict with those of bird watchers if the latter are prepared to accept that there will be predation among all bird populations, and in a well-managed area that benefits multiple species, the human predation of a few selected species can be kept at sustainable levels.
“Additionally, in places such as the Scottish moors, which do not support many other types of economic activity, the introduction of grouse and other game birds for hunting provides some form of commercial use for the land.
“Money is an important factor in conservation. The managed collection of young Common Hill-mynas (Gracula religiosa) (above) plays a major part in persuading villagers in certain Asian countries to protect the species. Hill-mynas can produce several broods per season, and their young now sell for increasing sums. With managed collection, the parent birds are protected, and sufficient young birds are left behind each year to ensure the existence of a viable population.
6. Interaction with the media and the authorities
“Nature enthusiasts should take every opportunity to engage the media and the authorities to further their cause. I do. I write to the Press. I write on this blog, and I write to official bodies when I disagree with what they are doing.
“When you feel strongly about an issue, do not hesitate to make your opinions known. This was my practice long before the Singapore conversation began. The mass media in Singapore is generally open to publishing feedback from members of the public on nature issues provided that this is kept short and to the point.
“The above is also true of feedback or calls to action by various government bodies. If you find that aspects of nature conservation can be improved, contact the relevant authorities. If you do not get a satisfactory response, go to a higher level, all the way to the top if you must. Don’t forget that in Singapore, your member of parliament conducts weekly meet-the-people sessions. If you are a voter in the constituency, you have every right to meet him. If you live in a Group Representative Constituency, one of the MPs serving you is likely to be a Minister, so make him hear your case.
“Remember that you can make a difference. You can’t win them all, but activists united in support of nature did manage to preserve Chek Jawa and a good part of the Forest Reserve in the Pierce Reservoir area LINK.
“But when interacting with the media or the authorities, your arguments must be well prepared, properly researched, and presented unemotionally. I stress again, get your facts right. And present the bare facts with as few adjectives as possible. Words such as ‘terrible, pitiful, disgraceful, cruel, etc.’ don’t add any objective balance to the argument. They also leave you open to counter-attack. Please be reminded that Singapore has some of the strongest anti-libel laws in the world. While these have generally been applied in the political arena, they can be used by any member of the public, and have been.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you are serving the cause of conservation by getting the media or animal rights activists to harass some private collector hiding Birds of Paradise or other CITES Appendix 1 creatures in his backyard. I used to know of some, and also that the pets were imported into Singapore legally at great cost. I too have done the proper paperwork to authorise the legal ownership of my CITES-listed birds.
“Owners who like exotic pets enough to spend a lot buying them are also sufficiently committed to their hobby to put money down to sue if troubled by baseless harassment.”
Lee Chiu San
26th April 2013
Note: Image of Common Hill-myna by Chan Yoke Meng, others by YC Wee.