Call Playback, Mealworm Use, Flash Photography, Mist Netting & the Like: What Lengths to get The Shot?

posted in: Miscellaneous | 12

Introduction
“The recent media coverage of bird photographers (reluctant to call them bird watchers) tying up a tern chick for better images has prompted me to open a discussion on all our activities relating to birds LINK. This kind of behaviour is not peculiar to any one community or country and bird photographers/watchers have attained an unpleasant paparazzi-like reputation LINK. Others may justify less ‘intrusive’ behaviour like feeding birds or call playback but even here there are disagreements.

“In discussing these issues I do not always expect agreement or consensus, but I hope for reflection and dialogue, as we try and collectively improve our understanding as to how we can relate to birds and nature better, with more respect. Some may call me idealistic or a purist but I am also trying to make sense of my own journey and relationship with birds. Of course those who read this are possibly the ‘converted’ and our wayward brethren may continue on their merry way (some ideas about ‘helping’ them later in the article).


[The graphic on T-shirt on my wife’s MNS T-shirt says it all]

“In this discussion I have not separated bird watchers, bird photographers or even ornithologists. I believe the ‘rules’, if any, apply to all equally. I have used information from a variety of sources (some in references) and also from my own experiences and dialogue with others over my practices.

“I have tried to structure the discussion into 5 categories:
1. Totally Unacceptable Behaviours & Practices
2. Dubious Behaviours & Practices
3. Uncertain Behaviours & Practices
4. Can Certain Practices be Sanctioned for Scientific Purposes?
5. Potentially New Behaviours & Practices to Consider

“May I say at the start that all bird watching, bird photography and scientific bird work disturbs birds. Our aim is to keep this disturbance to a minimum and ensure it is not harmful. I like what the Nature Group of The Royal Photographic Society says ‘There is one hard and fast rule, whose spirit must be observed at all times – The welfare of the subject (birds) is more important than the photograph’ and can I add ‘or the observation.’

1. Totally Unacceptable Behaviours & Practices
(Handling Birds, Nest disturbance, Habitat disturbance, Flushing)

“I think it is generally obvious to any decent human being that handling birds to get better images is never acceptable. We may handle a bird to rescue it and in the process get some images but never routinely. Some local and overseas visiting bird watchers have been known to ‘use mist nets to trap birds so that very close looks may be obtained’. Similarly nest disturbance or habitat disturbance is unconscionable. Some bird photographers/watchers have been known to cut away vegetation around a nest for better images; others to remove chicks for close up images. This ‘gardening’ of the area around nests increases exposure and potential for predation. Parking a tripod and long lens next to a nesting site for an extended period is also harmful. In the same vein, flushing a bird to get a better view or image is obviously traumatic and bad behaviour.

2. Dubious Behaviours & Practices
(Call Playback, Spotlighting, Feeding)
“I have gradually come to the opinion that using call playback, feeding birds and spotlight use is more harmful than useful. Yes it aids the bird photographer/watcher but at what cost? A body of scientific data is slowly appearing on the harmful effects of call playback (PLOS ONE carries research articles). Good guidelines have appeared (see the one from Sibley) but the majority do not adhere to them. I recently came across 10 of my local chaps blaring out broadbill calls to attract birds on a forest trail. They were using portable loudspeakers and the volume and duration were unbelievable. Not only were birds distressed, so was I as a bird watcher. The worst is that some of these are persons who claim to be serious bird watchers and are nature society members. To my shame I did not confront them but left the site. There is such a thing as ‘responsible recording playback’ but few know how or do it right. In a recent discussion on an American Bird Association (ABA) group, in view of the proliferating electronic devices in the field, a member proposed the ABA Code of Birding Ethics be tightened to say ‘The ABA discourages the use of recordings to attract birds in the field’.

“Many also use meal worms routinely to entice birds, often photoshoping out the ‘offending’ worm. Yes bird feeders may be used in colder countries and sanctioned in gardens but feeding birds in the wild opens them to risks. There are concerns that providing ‘artificial’ food supplies increases dependence, opens the birds to predations, potentiate some species and may encourage the spread of disease. I am aware that some paid bird guides routinely use meal worms to ensure their clients that birds will be available. Others have shared with me how poachers have been converted into bird guides as an occupation with feeding activities used to ‘attract bird photographers’.

“What about spotlighting? Use of a flashlight is not uncommon, especially for nocturnal birds. But it may temporarily blind birds and place then at risk. Using it on a nest will frighten the young and may cause adults to abandon the nest. Perhaps confessing my failure may put this in perspective. Four or five years ago I spotted a White-throated Kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis) nesting in a drain hole. I decided to take a quick peek with total time at nest of less than 90 seconds. I used a torch to illuminate and took quick pictures. What I saw almost broke my heart and remains a vivid memory to this day – I saw two fragile chicks flinch in fear at the light I shone on them. I had originally planned to do a series of pictures to document growth, fledgling but after this first visit I abandoned the site. I am not sure I could take losing one of these beauties, even if it is a ‘common bird’. To censure myself I have never before posted those images (below). There are no easy answers but I consider these as sentient beings.

“After that event I opened a discussion with a number of respected colleagues on this issue. I reproduce below segments of their communication which is relevant to our entire discussion (I have chosen to suppress identities out of respect for their privacy):

“’… I have long been keenly aware of the potential data content of photographs, also of their value as identification back-up. …. That said, I am not at all in favour of wildlife photo ‘stamp-collecting’, especially when this becomes competitive and risks are taken with the security and well-being of subjects simply to stay ahead of rivals. Potential exposure of nests to predators through undue ‘gardening’ and other interference just to acquire the needed ‘tick’ or piece of close-up art, to my mind, in most cases probably cannot be justified.’

“’ … I do not particularly encourage nest photography, but if someone should come upon a nest during the course of normal birdwatching and take some photographs quickly, keeping disturbance to a minimum and withdrawing from the scene as rapidly as possible, then I see nothing wrong with that. … Once we have images of a typical nest for a species, however, I see little point in adding any more to any database and would discourage anyone from going after additional photos of nests where we already have some.’

“’… Photographing nestling in dark nest tunnels or tree holes would, of course, necessitate the use of flash. The question for me, then, would be to ask exactly how important the resulting picture will be. Is it to record some hitherto unknown behaviour or activity, or just to add another picture to one’s collection, rather like acquiring another trophy? I do not think that one or two pictures will alarm the subject or cause too much damage. They will, naturally, be quite surprised or startled by the sudden burst of bright light and react to it.’

3. Uncertain Behaviours & Practices
(Mimicking Bird Calls/Vocalisation, Use of Hides, Flash Photography)

“I occasionally vocally imitate bird calls and some birds will approach to investigate, is this any different from using call playback? Some would argue it is different, others that it is the same and hence potentially harmful. I am generally using it less with time and make sure I ‘lose’ with any bird who responds – I use it sparingly and limit the number of calls. Hides are a more difficult issue to decide on. They can be useful to document behaviour and minimise trauma to nesting birds but strict guidelines must be followed (see: The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice). But increasingly we see the use of temporary hides and these can only be justified for mobile birds, not for nests. I also have some nagging concerns about ‘hiding’ from birds. I find they get very startled when they spot you suddenly appearing from behind a bush or hide. So perhaps taking the time to cultivate a mutual, visual understanding and relationship is the more rewarding option. Flash photography is the most contentious of the lot. Many bird photographers/watchers routinely use flash photography to improve the quality of the image. In some circumstances, a cave or dark environment, the image cannot be taken without a flash. Distance and type of flash matter. There is no doubt that birds are affected, but is there harm? Personally I rarely use it.

4. Can Certain Practices be Sanctioned for Scientific Purposes?
(Ringing, Mist Nettings, Egg Collection, ‘Collecting’ Birds for Museum Specimens)

“This group of activities are carried out by the bird scientist, the ornithologist. Valid and useful work, but some of which needs more scrutiny. The injury rates and mortality that birds experience with these activities is not always spoken about. I have heard from those in the field of the problems associated with collecting birds with mist nets or other techniques. John G. Williams, curator or ornithology at the British Museum in Nairobi, and author or co-author of ‘The Birds of East Africa’ is quoted as saying ‘I have skinned thousands of birds caught in mist nets. Every single one of them, from tiny passerines to large raptors, had bruises on their breasts that matched the pattern of the net that they struck at high speed.’ A small percentage of birds caught in mist nets die upon impact and still others perish or are injured while being removed or afterwards.’ LINK.

“A local ornithologist shared with me ‘From the scientific point of view, I have been constantly criticised for my reluctance in ‘collecting’ birds as museum specimens. I am a ringer, and I regularly set up nets to trap birds. For me to actually kill a bird I have trapped feels rather like a betrayal of trust, and a breach of the ringer’s code of conduct. However, birds do, sometimes, die in the net, or of shock during handling. … Nearly always, I have generally been so upset by it that I just pack up my nets and go home. The dead bird, however, I prefer not to waste – I usually send the body to the nearest Museum.’

“Marlene Condon (see reference) argues that the time has come to halt bird banding (ringing). In that same article is an argument for it to continue. Data shows that only a very small percentage of the millions of birds banded are ever recovered, but a higher rate of mortality, loss reproductively and impaired is faced by these banded birds.

“I could continue with reports of birds ‘collected’, polite word for killed, to study stomach contents, etc but feel the point has been made. Yes scientific work is required but in the age of digital technology much can be achieved without trauma but by more painstaking observations.

5. New (and Potentially New) Behaviours & Practices to Consider
(Radio Transmitters & Satellite-Tracking, Continual Video Recoding/Cam of Nests Online, Drones?)

“Some of these are not really very new but are increasingly deployed, especially some form of GPS tracking of movement and migration. I know too little about them to say much more. But I recently saw an image of a raptor taken from a drone that suggested we may, in the future, have enthusiasts hovering these devices up to high nests to get close ups. An area of concern for nesting raptors and others.


[A Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) feeding with Asian Openbills and egrets during a recent visit to the Peninsula)]

Taking Responsible Action
“I would like to end by discussing some options and direction forwards. It requires all of us, bird watchers, bird photographers and ornithologists, to work collectively to encourage our colleagues to behave responsibly towards birds. Some suggestions:

a. Evaluate and change our own behaviour first.

b. Move away from and discourage the twitcher/ticker bird watcher mentality with the associated ‘kiasu’ attitude (one-up-manship) to ‘must capture the image’. This includes us discontinuing the reporting of new and total bird species seen and such associated activities.

c. We must actively discourage paparazzi bird photography behaviour and speak against it when we see it. It only needs for you to tell one person about a rare bird for 200-300 to turn up and harass the bird. Best at times to keep quiet and report the nest or bird after the event.

d. There is a need to tighten local bird watching behaviour rules and be more explicit about specific activities.

e. There must be safe guards for local and overseas eco bird tourism. Time to organise bird guides in an association and set standards.

f. Web sites moderators must also encourage better behaviour and restrict posting excessive images of nesting birds.

g. For our wayward brethren, who choose to disregard basic rules and respect for birds, the time has come to ‘police’ ourselves. We fail each other if we do not speak out. We need to document bad behaviour and submit to a central group that make decisions about the ethics of this behaviour. Once decided (sufficient evidence) clear action should be taken that could include:
• Inform all major blogs and bird database moderators.
• Remove all images taken by them from any blog/post/bird database.
• Publicly name and shame in bird circles.
The hope is that such behaviour will decrease and some will reform.

“In the final analysis, we must ask what is our aim? I believe in the end the birds must come first. It does not matter if we do not get the ‘shot’. Too much of an obsession these days to get that ‘perfect’ image, time to let go and just enjoy nature. The best images are kept in the heart.”

Some Useful References:

American Bird Association (ABA) Code of Birding Ethics.
http://www.aba.org/about/ethics.html

Ethical Birding Guidelines – Birdlife Australia LINK.

Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) Code Of Birding Ethics LINK.

Marlene Condon, Is It Time to Halt Bird Banding? LINK.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – The birdwatchers’ code LINK 1 and LINK 2.

Sibley Guides – The Proper Use of Playback in Birding LINK.

Slim Sreedharan, Wildlife photography LINK.

The Nature Photographers’ Code of Practice – Produced by The Nature Group of The Royal Photographic Society. Revised 2007 in consultation with the RSPB and the three Statutory Nature Conservation Councils LINK.

blessings
Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS
Ipoh, Malaysia
25th September 2014

12 Responses

  1. Daisy O'Neill

    Dear Amar,

    This has to be the best article report and much overdue and so glad there could be no one better, most suitable to do it. It should be posted to reach the widest audience possible.

    I fully agree to what you have written and observed in the field of bird-photographers’ conduct. Their activities seemed to have sprout opened in the last 2 decades.

    A full study to get to the roots how it all began and manifested would be interesting to research bringing into consideration evolution of camera companies -their R&D churning up to profess new, bigger better models to satiate shutter bugs with means to compete and upgrade their expensive ‘toys.’

    The new age of websites: Photographic Bird Blogs that thrive by receiving bird images from fellow members post to equal or show off their ‘bird models’ or a better word used- share their pictures. Like comparing with stamp collection, what satisfaction would it be at the end when the welfare of birds they photographed are being compromised by their inappropriate actions?. Moderators of such bird blogs-may want to re-think seriously the long term effect of managing such bird blogs in terms of welfare and bird conservation. What their members sent in, are they going to be good for the birds in the long run?

    Many new-photographers that enter the birding scene are not aware that bird-photography is a serious hobby;one that carries great responsibility, a steadfast discipline and of maturity in order to conduct oneself worthy to its name.

    Often, they follow their elder peers blindly, picking up bad habits thinking that they were allowed to seemingly do so as there is no one to police them while those who do try to advise often faced impolite insults.

    If any Nature Societies they belong to, one would expect the society to address and provide guide lines for their members. It is so disappointing to see/read fellow Society members/committee members continue to post active nesting sites into their branch group emails. Can’t they wait until the chicks fledged before giving unwanted signals for bird-photographers to pursue the nest?.
    Isn’t this a shame when the fundamental basic rule is ignored by own fellow members?

    In addition to the list of proposals to address the situation, I propose Nature Societies/ Independent Government body register their fellow members of wild life/bird photographers and to sign for their code of good conduct to be practiced. Unless membership valid, there will be no postings of any pictures allowed in any forums, bird blogs, bird groups etc.
    Any malpractice by members will render their expulsion and total band and face public humiliation.

    There should be no emphasis on bird photography competition, band the use of playback birdcalls recordings, down play the use of nesting photographs in advertistments, guidebooks, bird frames, bird magazines,(except scientific journals or articles of scientific value)

    As Rome wasn’t built in a day, with education and consistent reinforcement, will slowly and surely get heard somewhere, sometime but at least the initiation has begun.
    If we are very lucky, we may at most see the plateau phase by the time the sun sets on us.

    There are very few say…purists like you and me, who each in our own way -doing it solo and I am so glad to find you in similar tandem, my birdy friend.

    All best,

    Daisy

  2. Lee Chiu San

    I will address the three latest postings in this comment – Amar’s well-considered piece on the ethical way to photograph birds, Daisy’s query on what drives people to keep birds as pets, and David Tan’s questionnaire on what I consider to be ethical bird photography.

    I agree fully with Amar that in the pursuit of our hobby, we should not endanger birds in any way. That includes subjecting them to stress. There can be no excuse for handling or restraining wild or baby birds in order to get a better shot.

    And I strictly disapprove of “gardening” to clear the surroundings so as to allow a better shot.

    Feeding of birds in public and nature reserves is also to be discouraged. The former is illegal in Singapore. Feeding disrupts the natural behavior of all animals. In a nature reserve, can you do it with such consistency as to be able to maintain a schedule that the birds have grown accustomed to? It is criminal to cause birds to waste time and energy coming to locations and waiting for food that does not arrive.

    However, feeding in private gardens is another matter. I want lots of nature in my house. Fortunately, so does my immediate neighbour. Our two houses are full of fruiting and flowering bushes (Ficus benjamica, Melastoma malabarthricum, Thallia dealbata, Duranta erecta, Murraya paniculata, Lantana camara, etc.,) that attract large numbers of butterflies, other insects, and, of course, birds.

    And I feed. Regularly, according to a schedule. When my wife and I are out of town, my nephew takes over the job diligently.

    It is vital that the immediate neighbours are in agreement. Fat and well-fed birds produce copious amounts of droppings. Fortunately, ours are the last two houses on the street, and we do not mind washing our cars more frequently.

    Daisy asked about the survival rate of released birds formerly kept as pets. I have to agree with her that it is poor. Now, why do I still keep pet birds? Well, I also used to train dogs in obedience competitions, and currently have three cats.

    That answer does not say very much does it? Mankind has lived with other types of animals for generations, and some of them do become good companions. Many species of social birds (parrots, pigeons, doves, starlings, mynahs, crows) do form strong bonds with people. Perhaps I am pontificating here, or other readers may choose to disbelieve me, but I do take my responsibilities towards my pets seriously. They are definitely not disposables.

    I hope that other bird keepers will adopt the same attitude. The other reason is because I have lived and worked in less-developed countries, and have a dim view of survival prospects for some species in the wild.

    If rare birds are available legally on the market, and I have the facilities to cater for them, I will try to obtain a pair, in the hope of maintaining a captive breeding population. OK, I also like keeping them, but this will not be a frivolous decision. You are talking about outlays of S$6,000 for a pair of straw-headed bulbuls, S$30,000 for Rothchild’s mynahs, or S$60,000 for Hyacinth macaws. This is not loose change that you will throw around on a whim.

    Which is why I am very glad that with much tighter licensing and import requirements, the price of birds has shot up considerably in Singapore. The days of paying S$12 for a munia or S$30 for a red-whiskered bulbul or zebra dove are over. Minimum prices are now five to ten times that amount.

    Seldom now do you find parents purchasing birds for “their children to play with.”

    Though my opinion may sound very Singaporean and elitist, the higher prices have raised the standard of bird-keeping in Singapore. Most of those who purchase birds are prepared to take more care of their “investments.” Yes, bird keepers and bird keeping behaviour is still a very long way from a desirable level, but hopefully, one day we will get there.

    And in the meantime, kudos to people like Daisy, and Amar, avid advocates of treating our avian friends in a responsible manner.

    • Dear Chiu San,
      I appreciate your candid response and honesty.
      But could I say, that wildlife trade will die if there is no demand.
      The Straw-headed Bulbuls that I used to listen to in my younger days (~40 years ago) are extremely difficult to find. I miss their presence in many of the forest reserves I go to.
      I also have great difficulty with caging any creature, especially birds who so enjoy flying.

      Amar

  3. Lee Chiu San

    Honestly, I won’t mind if the commercial bird trade were to die out. But I would like to see some legal avenues left open for those who wish to keep and breed birds. I fully understand Amar’s discomfort at caging birds. After a while, I too grew uncomfortable with caged songbirds. Fortunately, I had the space to build aviaries.

    The ideal situation would be an open zoo concept, with pet birds free to come and go, but being fed and taken care of in a central location. I have already written an article for this website (Keeping birds as pets) on the problems such an enterprise would entail.

    The main problem is that the human population, especially that in Singapore, is not up to the mark. Children harass tame, free-flying birds. Poachers are rampant. And complaints about mess are never-ending. Plus, if there is another bird-flu crisis, the authorities step in with indiscriminate mass culling.

    Still, some headway is being made. As YC said, the Straw-headed bulbul is making a noticeable comeback in Singapore.

    This could partly be, surprisingly, because of rapid urbanisation. The vast majority of the population here lives in flats. The old skills of tree climbing, bird-trapping (and pig hunting, more of that later) have been lost.

    The Straw-headed bulbul is extremely wary, and does not often come to ground level. In Singapore, tree climbing is generally frowned upon by the authorities, so many children have never learned how to do so. The old poachers from the kampong days, now retired from their day jobs, and roaming the suburbs in search of ground-living magpie robins, zebra doves and spotted doves, are too arthritic to get up beyond the lowest branches.

    Besides, at S$3,000 apiece, the price of a decoy Straw headed bulbul is an investment they are not prepared to make. So, YC (and I) can enjoy the songs of birds that stay high up in the trees.

    To the separate subject of pigs, the citified and soft Singaporeans have a wild boar problem. The apex predators that used to come charging out of their huts, chanting recipes for pork curry, whenever a boar wandered out of the nature reserves and into the kampong were long ago relocated to high-rise apartments. Their progeny, raised in that artificial environment, never had the opportunity to practice making pit traps, dead falls and “jerat” wire nooses.

    The pig population exploded. They are now found in parks, university campuses, suburbs and work sites. My immediate neighbour’s vegetable garden has been raided. And a friend, in charge of a large worksite, also had problems with marauding pigs.

    Luckily, the old skills still survive among people in nearby countries. My friend, who has a fair number of Thai workers on his staff, reports that they are quite well fed.

  4. Sun Chong Hong

    I am not the diplomatic kind of person, so I will go staight to my comments, offering my thoughts on the subject from a different perspective.

    The suggested ‘rules’ is based on the premise that we, the human being, have the rights to observe and study birds. And by extension, all things living.

    I would like to ask: Do we? Who gave us the rights?

    As a non-seasoned bird watcher, I know that even highly urbanised birds like Black-naped Oriole hate to be observed. They would quickly hide behind covers the moment they were on radar. Another example is the Peregrine Falcon. There is one, presumably the same individual, that visited my areas regularly for the past few years during the wintering seasons. Even though its perch was on a tv antenna high up in a residential building some 130m away, I could tell that it was conscious of my watching it. It would leave the perch in late evenings only when I was not watching it. And it would leave in different directions to throw me off its track.

    I am sure none of us relish being watched, say by intelligent being from another part of the universe, recording our every moment, private or otherwise, with camera and note books, even in public space.

    This bring back memory of the Planets of the Apes science fiction series which illustrated how it was like when human beings were being studied by another intelligent being.

    Just some thoghts.

  5. An interesting and educational read.

  6. Daisy O'Neill

    At least pet owners would agree bird escapees have low survival rate and it must be heart breaking when their pets escaped -having developed a bond and fondness for them like parent-child relationship. So too their $$ investments took flight with them.

    Escapees having been totally food dependant on their owners, caged in for so long would have also lost much of their survival and predatory instincts. When they die due to predation in the wild or of hunger because they lacked foraging skills, don’t owners feel responsible for their prior actions in keeping them in cages that had cause it?
    The birds that have been kept in for so long- they don’t know how to live wild anymore, be they kept in a gilded cage or an aviary.- Can I say then, owners have deprived caged birds the freedom of flight,to survive in the wild and to procreate- which is the ultimate of its existence to keep its species alive.

    And all because owners love to see their pet bird closer and so to possess them? Birds are made with wings and design to fly not like felines or canines where pet owners can warm, bond to and provide the comforts of ownership in their own property on ground level.

    The nightmare is, even if one decides or I would at least try to convince one to let their pet bird go free, one cannot anymore because the caged birds will not survived.

    Perhaps I can placate pet bird owners to enjoy the birds they keep at the moment until they live their lives out …but don’t go out and blow your dollars away and get some more. If you must, donate to BESG for a better cause….Any givers?

    Daisy

  7. Lee Chiu San

    Thank you, Chong Hong and Daisy, for adding your considered opinions to this discussion. We could go on all night, all week, and all year examining the various angles from which bird watching, bird keeping, dog training, farming and other human/animal interactions impact the rights/humane treatment of non-human life forms.

    I take this opportunity to state my stand, which not everyone will agree with. Well, we have, so far, usually managed to entertain a diversity of views on this website, and have managed to disagree without being disagreeable.

    Even though I disapprove of many of the practices of commercial animal husbandry, I am not a vegetarian. I have tried being one several times in my life, and my body just did not adapt to it. A medical doctor explained that some human populations evolved in areas with a high degree of animal protein in the diet. People from such areas don’t do well on pure vegetarian diets. After all, despite the common fallacy that our ancestors lived on fruits and nuts, the fact is, monkeys and apes have a lot of animal protein in their diets. And some of them hunt actively.

    That said, I will absolutely not eat certain types of animal foods. I protest strongly against fois gras and veal, both dishes produced through the cruel torture of geese and calves. Some forms of factory farming also leave me cold, and I will boycott meat products if I know that they come from such sources.

    Which brings us to the subject of keeping birds in captivity. In my opinion, some birds don’t know the difference. Magpie robins and shamas are solitary in the wild. They have no social structure, apart from the pair coming together during the breeding season. After that, good luck to the female if her path should cross that of the male.

    I don’t think that a well-cared-for shama in sufficiently spacious living quarters bothers at all if it is in the middle of the jungle or in an aviary in a suburban garden. I have no qualms about keeping birds with such characteristics.

    On the other hand, my experiences with some of the parrot tribe have left deep and disturbing personal impressions. They are extremely intelligent. The experiments of Dr Irene Pepperberg have shown that they are actually sentient, able to express feelings and desires. And they bond very, very closely to their flock mates and to people.

    If captured from the wild, these birds miss and pine for their flock mates. If they are hand raised from young, they miss their human companions. They have preferences among the people who associate with them. You cannot just give one away and hope that it will fit into its new home. Plus, they live a long, long time. Even the small ones (cockatiels, Psittacula parakeets, etc) exceed 20 years. The big ones like Macaws and Cockatoos will very likely pass 40.

    Catering to the psychological needs of a big parrot is beyond the means of an average family. It demands a lot of attention. It is noisy, and easily bored. And, the most guilt-inducing part, it misses you and cries piteously when you are not around. And it can throw temper tantrums – not funny with something that has a beak like a wire cutter and a scream that shatters glass. Unless you are very, very, very committed to aviculture, avoid the big parrots. Walk away when one with a sad look cuddles up to you in a pet shop and begs to be taken home. And, hopefully, the trade in producing such feathered plush toys will stop.

    And there are birds like waterhens (of which I have lots of experience) and certain babblers which never accept the close proximity of human beings. Such birds should not be caged. I enjoy the waterhens living free in my garden.

    Then, there are birds which fall somewhere between these two extremes. Canaries, fancy finches and various species of domesticated doves come to mind. These birds have been bred in captivity for generations, centuries even. They are as much domestic animals as dogs and cats, horses and cattle.

    I feel that whether or not one should keep them as pets is something very open to subjective debate. I personally would do so, with the proviso that pet owners have to be responsible, and ensure that their charges are well cared for.

    Pet birds are not toys, to be released when the owners get bored. Doing so is the height of irresponsibility. The survival rate of domestic-bred birds is close to zero. Some pet owners seem to want to ensure that it is zero. During the last bird-flu scare, my nephew heard chirping in the garbage bay of his block of apartments and rescued a pair of lovebirds still in their cage, which had been dumped in the bin.

    Chong Hong raised an interesting point about what gives us the right to watch birds. All I can say is that thankfully, some birds, like his falcon, orioles and the straw-headed bulbuls that visit our webmaster, are skittish. Their dislike of being watched helps ensure their survival.

    I sign off with general observations on human/animal interactions. What gives us the right to farm animals for food? Can hunting be justified? Is the use of draught animals and trained dogs a form of slavery?

    My (very) personal views are: I don’t agree with factory farming, but can accept the consumption of free-range cattle and pigs. After all, mankind and other carnivores have eaten other animals for millenia.

    Following that, I used to hunt in the days when it was still legal to own guns in Singapore. The strong hunting lobby is a potent force for conservation in the USA and Scotland. There are areas where it is almost impossible to get a good return from agriculture. But judicious game management allows a sustainable population of deer and grouse which can be harvested annually. And the protected areas provide habitat for many other forms of wildlife.

    I cannot speak about riding horses and using bullocks to pull carts as I have minimal experience in those areas. But I used to enjoy dog training, and some dogs loved the competition, even though we have been accused to being slave drivers.

    Dogs have personalities as different as people. I used to have a shy sheepdog who disliked going out. She did quite OK in competition because I worked her hard, but she did not like it. Eventually, she was given to a close friend who just wanted a good family dog.

    On the other hand, two of my best dogs loved the limelight. They would get all excited when showtime came around. They put real enthusiasm into their performances and puffed themselves up whenever the crowds applauded. And boy, could they play up to the crowds, with their happy smiles and wagging tails. It was plain that both dogs and trainer were glad to be in the ring.

    And I think that also sums up my views on bird keeping and bird watching. You can listen to all opinions, but in the end, your own conscience has to be your guide.

  8. […] out this LINK by veteran birder Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS for a more thorough discussion on such […]

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