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Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Alcoholism in Birds, etc

Alcoholism in Birds, etc

Following Richard Hale’s contribution on Drunken Javan Mynas, I have managed to source out instances of other drunken birds as well as mammals and even insects. It would appear that humans are not the only species that is addicted to alcohol.

1. In many Southeast Asian countries palm inflorescences are tapped for a sweet drink that can be boiled down into palm sugar or fermented into toddy. These palms include coconut (Cocos nucifera), toddy (Borassus flabellifer) and fishtail (Caryota urens) palms. And it has been known for some time that Blue-crowned Hanging Parrots (Loriculus galgulus) regularly steal palm toddy from collecting pots placed over bound palm inflorescences, to become quite intoxicated afterwards. Lories have also been known to be addicted to palm toddy.

2. In February 2005 dozens of birds got drunk after eating holly berries (Ilex aquifolium) from trees found in an enclosed courtyard of a three-storey office building in Columbia, South Carolina, USA. After these Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) feasted on the berries, many fell off branches while others crashed into the glass of the building and died. A local naturalist reported that these birds have a huge appetite, some even eating until they drop dead.

3. In Auckland, New Zealand comes a report that many kereru or New Zealand Pigeons (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) became drunk after eating fermented guavas. They fell out of trees and bumped into windows after become intoxicated. About 30 birds had to be rescued by staff from the Whangarei Native Bird Rescue Centre in June-July 2005 as they were vulnerable to predators like cats and dogs. It was reported that there was a shortage of food in the forest forcing the birds eating the guavas.

4. Clare Kines from the Arctic Bay in Canada, some 700 km north of the Arctic Circle, wrote to say that where he lives, Robins regularly got drunk on honeysuckle berries.

5.Mike of Santa Barbara, California, who posted Growing Up with California Condors in the current I and the Bird carnival, made an interesting comment to Richard Hale's posting on drunken mynas:

“Many years ago in the western foothills of the California Sierra where apple orchards were common, I happened to be next to one talking to a friend. At that moment, a Robin walked out from underneath his pickup, eyed us and fell over on its side. ‘Don't pay it no mind. It'll be OK. It's just drunk as a skunk. Look over there’ he gestured toward the orchard. That's when I noticed that it was full of noisy, very wobbly Robins. The apples still on the trees had frozen and fermented as they thawed.

"Imagine, a bar room filled with drunks who could fly. They were singing, fighting, and missing branches by feet in their attempts to land. Occasionally, a bird would apparently just pass out and fall off a limb in the boneless drop of the truly whacked. Some had abandoned flight altogether and were weaving through the grass.

"It happens every so often when we get a frost before the pick's finished. Robins are the worst. My wife says they must of Irish in another life. Tomorrow, it'll be real quiet. Man could make a fortune off aspirin if those birds had money."

6. It has been observed that if parrots get drunk, they become more talkative, only to stop talking altogether after they fall over. Smugglers of rare birds in Mexico regularly overdose their birds with tequila to quiet them when crossing the border into the US.

7. Elephants regularly gorge themselves with fermented fruits to end up drunk and not being able to walk straight.

8. Bumblebees, hornets and wasps lose their coordination after feeding on fermented fruits.

9. Margie Hall sent a report of a party of drunken elk in Sweden attacking an old people’s home. They had earlier feasted on fermenting apples. “I am sure many of us know how great cider (made from fermenting apples) tastes and can understand why the elks are addicted to them,” says Margie.

10. It seems that monkeys are just like humans in their drinking behaviour. At McGill University in Montreal, researchers fed Green Vervet Monkeys with alcohol and found that they could be classified into four categories: teetotaler, social drinker, steady drinker and binge drinker. Most were social drinker, indulging in moderation and only with other monkeys, and never before lunch. In a cage of these monkeys, they acted like they were in a cocktail party. One got aggressive, another became sexy, one was the clown of the party and another became the grumpy of the group. The binge drinker ended up on the floor


Saturday, November 26, 2005

How many years do sunbirds live?

How many years do sunbirds live?

Sunbirds are small, hyper-active and highly colourful in the males but not the females. There are six species in Singapore, of which four can be regularly seen in the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Brown-throated (Anthreptes malacensis), Copper-throated (Nectariana calcostetha), Olive-backed (N. jugularis) and Crimson (Aethopyga siparaja). Of these, the most common is the Brown-throated. It is also the largest, with a body length of up to 139 mm and a weight of up to 14 g. The male is generally larger than the female in terms of both length and weight. The Crimson and the Olive-backed qualify as the smallest of the four. These two species share a common characteristic in that they exhibit an eclipse plumage in the males. This is essentially a short-term post-breeding plumage.

Now how many years do sunbirds live? Studies elsewhere have shown that certain species can live as long as 12 years. We at the reserve have been monitoring these birds by ringing studies for many years now. We have records of all the species except the Crimson, showing that they can live for at least 5 years.

Contributed by James Gan, Senior Conservation Officer, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve.
Adapted from an article by James Gan in Wetlands Vol. 9 No.3
pp.10-11, an NParks Publication.

Comment by Bird Specialist R Subaraj
Elsewhere in the world, regular long-term banding projects have proven invaluable in obtaining a wide spectrum of data about birds, including their life expectancy in the wild. In Singapore, the only regular long-term banding is carried out at Sungei Buloh Wetlands Reserve and as such, the only source for particular aspects of bird ecology here.

David Wells’ Malayan Bird Report of 1974-1975 discussed the subject of longevity of local birds. It mentions that based on continued ringing in Malaysia, Africa, tropical America and tropical Australia, tropical birds have a much longer lifespan, apparently several times, than similar-sized species in temperate areas. It is thought that the absence in the tropics of winter, with its seasonal collapse especially of arthropod populations, is directly or indirectly responsible for this.

The 1960s and 1970s were the "Golden Years" of bird ringing in Malaysia and Singapore and much data on longevity of local birds were collected. Wells’ report of that year further mentions that over a 17 year period (1959-1975), 46 resident birds were known to have survived for at least 5 years. The record then was held by an Olive-winged Bulbul (Pycnonotus plumosus) in Klang that was retrapped and released 157 months after it was first trapped and ringed!

On the topic of sunbirds, the 1974-1975 report mentions the retrapping of a Copper-throated Sunbird after 49 months and a Brown-throated Sunbird after 141 months! Will Sungei Buloh's ringing programme break the record? Only time will tell, though much more importantly, the ringing programme will continue to amass a tremendous amount of truly vital data. Kudos to the dedicated team at our wetlands reserve!


Thursday, November 24, 2005

I and the Bird #11 - Where in the World?

I and the Bird #11 - Where in the World?

Once again the Bird Ecology Study Group is participating in the 'I and the Bird' blog carnival designed specifically for bird lovers.

The carnival, the eleventh in the series, celebrating the theme "Where in the world?" is hosted by Clare Kines. Clare lives 900 km north of Iqalult in Arctic Bay, Canada, some 700 km north of the Arctic Circle. Our posting, Drunken Javan Mynas by Richard Hale attracted a "Don't they know you can't serve fermented fruits to mynas?" tongue-in-cheek comment from the host. Drunken mynas may be a novel thing in Singapore, but where the host is, Robins regularly got drunk on honeysuckle berries.

Click on the link and see what other birders are saying from around the world.


Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Mobbing of a Barn Owl

Mobbing of a Barn Owl

This incident occurred about noon some two to three years ago around an old longan tree (Dimocarpus longan). The tree was planted from seed 37 years ago and at that time the branches had been pruned and new shoots were sprouting, producing 'bobs' of new leaves. It was the favourite of seven to eight House Crows (Corvus splendens) that used it to rest after feeding.

The tree was growing between our house and my uncle's who lived next door. He was gardening below the tree when he noticed a couple of crows circling above and calling loudly. Curious, he looked closely at the tree to find a Barn Owl (Tyto alba) resting on a branch, hidden by the one of the leaves bobs.

He called all of us out to see the owl. Naturally the bird ignored us as it was more concerned with the crows above. As long as my uncle was working below the tree, the crows kept their distance and the owl was left unmolested.

After a while, when my uncle finished his work and got further away from the tree, the crows came nearer to the tree, calling frequently. They did not land but I think their cries were too much for the resting owl. It took off soon after. It has not returned until today.

At present, the tree is no longer being used by crows. We have kept its branches pruned to the maximum and it is not as shady as before.

Contributed by Chew Ping Ting
Image of Barn Owl courtesy of Ashley Ng

This is a typical anti-predator behaviour and owls are popular targets, especially when caught resting during the daytime. Mobbing birds may include songbirds, crows, woodpeckers and those as small as hummingbirds. They make repeated dives as well as loud calls. They may or may not strike the predators. But cases have been known where owls were pecked on the eyes or the feathers. However, the owls are seldom hurt by these attacks and they seem to just ignore the mobbing birds, to eventually move away. It is possible that the mobbing birds know that it is safe to mob owls as these nocturnal birds are unable to attack the constantly moving mobbing birds.

Why birds mob predators? Probably to alert others of the presence of predator birds. Or to educate young birds on the identity of their enemies.

Comment by YC


Monday, November 21, 2005

The Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Urban Singapore

The Eurasian Tree Sparrow in Urban Singapore

The Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) we commonly see around is actually adapted to human habitation. It usually nests in any convenient holes in buildings. Then why is it called a tree sparrow? The colonial Britisher who named it was obviously familiar with it back home as a common woodland bird. It is the House Sparrow (P. domesticus) that is actually found around houses in Europe.

So we ended up with a Eurasian Tree Sparrow around houses and not trees in this part of the world. Once a common bird, it is now slowly being displaced by the more aggressive mynas and crows. Also, many of their traditional nesting areas are being “fenced” off or sealed. Their food sources are also being reduced as food leftover in open-air hawker areas is rapidly removed by efficient cleaners. And not to mention, more and more hawkers are being relocated to air-conditioned outlets where these birds have no access.

Also, in modern Singapore, we are seeing the proliferation of high-rise buildings. And these sparrows are not slow in adapting to modern-day living, as Jeffrey Low, a marine biologist, was quick to notice.

Around his Housing Board block in Toa Payoh, he has seen these sparrows nesting in the electrical trunking boxes. Jeffrey is actually happy to see this new trend, as he would like to see the return of more sparrows as opposed to mynas and crows. Don't we all?

Is this a common thing for sparrows to do? And could this adaptation to nesting in man-made structures be the cause their increase? Or is their resurgence due to some other factor? These are the questions that came to him as he pondered the issue of tree sparrows moving into HDB high-rise buildings.

R. Subaraj, our Bird Specialist, adds that this species follows man wherever he goes, even up hill resorts in the Malaysian mountains. It is a scavenger of human leftover food and for many years was a common sight around open-air food centres and coffeeshops. They roost and nest in roof spaces, light fittings or any other space found in a building.

Although this sparrow is common and everyone takes it for granted, we know relatively little about it. So birders, as well as sometime-birders, please provide more feedback on it - like its nesting habit and behavioural traits.

Contributed by Jeffrey Low
Additional input by R. Subaraj


Friday, November 18, 2005

A Spotted Wood-owl in Chinatown!

A Spotted Wood-owl in Chinatown!

It was about 11 pm on the night of Wednesday 9th November. Timothy and myself were walking to our cars after a wonderful Taiwan porridge dinner. Suddenly a bigger than usual thing flew into a tree at the corner green, on the side of the Tian Hock Keng temple in Amoy Street-Boon Tat Street junction. It could not be a bat. As it stood in the tree, with the light in front of it, from silhouette, I recognised it as an owl.

Tim was walking away and I called him back to help identify the owl. He had a digital camera with him and so he went to take some shots. In that darkness and considering that the owl was quite high up, it was difficult to get a good shot. But I guess there were enough features in the picture for him to identify the owl later on. He identified it as a Spotted Wood-owl (Strix seloputo), confirmed later by R. Subaraj. Certainly a lifer for me!

Tim thinks that the owl was attracted to the dozen or more chicken feet spread out on a sheet on newspaper below the tree. However he would not hazard a guess why the chicken feet were there.

Wished I had a pair of binos kept in my car.

Contributed by Victor Yue. Click here to see Victor's posting.
Image by Y.C. Wee

Victor Yue's photos definitely showed a Spotted Wood-owl. I have received reports of a large owl, possibly of this species, seen in Marina South, which isn't that far away. This would be the first confirmation of such an owl seen within the city limits. This owl is usually seen in forest-edge, open woodland, rural countryside and large parks and gardens. It has also been seen in Sentosa and at least one pair is resident in the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the surrounding areas. This is still an uncommon species in Singapore and not too many pairs are known.

Good record but I wonder what it was doing in the city? Post-breeding dispersal? Displacement due to the clearance of a nearby habitat? Looking for food? The bird could be attracted to the bats that hunt around the nearby lights. Or it could be attracted to the rodents that were in turn attracted to the chicken feet. Or it was simply there for a bit of shopping? Suggests that Victor and Tim go for more porridge suppers to further monitor the situation.

In Malaysia this is an owl that has adapted to the oil palm plantations where it hunts the Malaysian Wood Rat (Rattus tiomanicus) that feeds on the oil palm fruits. Within our city there are three common rats that the owl could hunt - House Rat (Rattus rattus), Polynesian Rat (Rattus exulans) and the large Norway Rat (Rattus norvegicus). So far the only owl known to hunt within our city limits is the Barn Owl (Tyto alba).

Comments by our Bird Specialist, R. Subaraj


Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Drunken Javan Mynas!

Drunken Javan Mynas!

Many years ago now, I lived in a house with a large garden. Next to the house was an old Madras Thorn (Pithecellobium dulce) tree which spread its branches to within a few feet of the walls. This tree flowered and produced fruit on a fairly regular basis but as far as I know this was not edible. At least I never tried to do so and perhaps this was wise. The fruit would on occasions fall to the ground during the day, after the gardener had swept up what had fallen overnight. It seems that some, if not all, of this was overripe and in some cases had even begun to ferment.

On many occasions I would come home from the office in the evening and find Javan Mynas (Acridotheres javanicus) on the verandah apparently dead to the world while others were staggering around tipsily having indulged a little too heavily in the overripe fruit. I took no notice of them nor they of me. By the morning they would all have disappeared, presumably with monumental hangovers.

Sadly for the mynas the tree had eventually to be cut down because the roots were causing trouble and furthermore it was infested with large millipedes which appeared to eat the layer under the bark, causing it to peel off and this eventually killed some of the big branches.

Contributed by Richard Hale
Image of 'drunken' myna courtesy of Saifuddin Suran

Additional comment by Nature Consultant, R Subaraj

Richard's article is most interesting. We have long known that butterflies get rather tipsy drinking from fermented fruits and this can be viewed easily in captive collections at any butterfly farm. They are so stoned that you can place your finger under their legs and they will crawl onto them.

In many areas, particularly forested habitats, various birds and other animals feed on the fallen fruits lying on the ground below many a tree. Some of these fruits are obviously rotting and fermenting. One wonders whether these have a similar effect on other species. It would be great to receive feedback from anyone who has witnessed any similar disorientated behaviour.

Additionally, has anyone else seen anything feeding on the fruits of the Madras Thorn? This tree used to be a common sight around Singapore when I was growing up but nowadays, they are rather uncommon.


Monday, November 14, 2005

Grey Heron foraging at night in Bedok canal?

Grey Heron foraging at night in Bedok canal?

I was walking along Bedok canal at 11 pm one night when I spotted what looked like a large heron hunting in it. Couldn't have been my eyes playing tricks on me because there was a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) nearby and it was definitely dwarfed by the larger heron. The large heron was distinctly whitish with black around the head and I thought around the wings as well, but it was dark. However, the neck was clearly whitish.

I went back to the canal the next night with a pair of binoculars but the large heron was not there. However, one of the foraging herons seemed to be a bit smaller and greyer than the usual Night Heron. I was wondering if that could be a Striated Heron (Butorides striatus). But then every bird that I spotted in the past had been a Night Heron.

I returned to the canal again a few nights later at 8.30 pm. And the large heron was there, standing on the side of the canal, on a set of steps. Its head was definitely moving, so it wasn't asleep. Again, a Night Heron was nearby, this time perched on the railing.

A Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) does hunt along Bedok canal in the day. I have got used to seeing a solitary Grey Heron hunting along this canal on the rare occasions I walked by it during the day. I have seen it remaining there till twilight gloom sets in, though I have never seen it catch anything yet. I am not sure if it is the same bird I spotted foraging at night.

Contributed by Timothy Pwee

Timothy's account provides excellent feedback on the feeding habits of our usually diurnal herons. Night Herons are regularly seen in canals and along waterways at night. We also have records of Striated Herons feeding in canals at night. However, I do not recall any prior local observations of Grey Herons feeding at night. Timothy's sighting provides evidence that this species does take advantage of nocturnal low tides.

Not only does this observation adds to our local knowledge of the Grey Heron's feeding habits, it also provides information about the bird'’s adaptation to our urban environment. What other species utilise our concrete waterways at night and also during the day? We have records of several feeding in canals/drains during the day but the suitability of these urban habitats depends on their design.

Input by our Bird Specialist, R Subaraj

Please also see this link


Thursday, November 10, 2005

Blog Carnival for Bird Lovers

Blog Carnival for Bird Lovers

Once again the Bird Ecology Study Group is participating in the 'I and the Bird' blog carnival designed specifically for bird lovers.

The carnival, the tenth in the series, celebrates the interaction between humans and birds. It is an ongoing exploration of the endless fascination with birdlife around the world. The current carnival is hosted by Pamela Martin of Thomasburg Walks with the theme: What, Who & Where.

It includes 28 posts from four continents, with posts describing bird identification, migration events, unlikely birding, lucky (and unlucky) birding, endangered birds, birds in recovery, and more.

Our submission this time is Bathing Sunbirds, posted by a budding 10 year old naturalist, Serin Subaraj.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

ZEBRA DOVES - 19. Are they really gone?

ZEBRA DOVES - 19. Are they really gone?

The family of three doves suddenly made their appearance on the 22nd October after an absence of nearly a month (see 18). They have since returned every morning for a week. At about 8am or a little later, sometimes announcing their presence with a series of cooing, they would be in my garden, foraging for seeds and possibly ants. They were always around the newly trimmed patch, moving together, never far from one another.

They appeared tame, allowing me to move close to about a metre away, sometime much less. They would stay in the garden for about two to three hours before one of them (possibly the adult) would fly off, soon followed by the other two.

On one particular morning all three rested along the driveway, stretching their wings and relaxing in the sun, as if enjoying a hard earned rest after a period of foraging. They remained for about 5 minutes before moving to a higher location where all three sat and preened for another 15 minutes. Then suddenly they all flew off, making a soft, squishing sound.

It has been a week now and they have not returned. Will they make a surprise return? Or have the three gone on their separate ways? I suppose only time will tell!


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Video of Crimson Sunbird

Video of Crimson Sunbird

The earlier posting "Tale of a tame Crimson Sunbird" by Tian Soo of GreenCircle Eco-Farm received a comment from Tang who related that he also found these birds very approachable. Tang kindly attached a video he made of a male bird visiting flowers for nectar. I have got his permission to relocate his video on the blog proper so that more can enjoy his excellent videography. Click on the the link below and enjoy!

Click here to view video


Sunday, November 06, 2005

Pink-necked Green Pigeons 2: Nest building

Pink-necked Green Pigeons 2: Nest building

It is reported that both the male and female Pink-necked Pigeons contribute to the building of the nest. The former sources for nesting materials while the latter sits in the nest site and construct the nest.

As with all pigeons and doves, the nest is a crude platform of twigs lodged firmly between the lower branches of a tree. I suppose nest materials will depend on what are available nearby. Around my area twigs from mempat trees (Cratoxylum formosum) are commonly used.

My Dracaena reflexa Song of India tree had seen two nestings, in February 2000 and again in February 2005. Around my area these birds also nest in wild water plum (Wrightia religiosa) bush and cockscomb (Erythrina crista-galli) tree. I am sure they nest in other plants as well.

If you walk past a tree and suddenly experience a noisy flight of a bird out of the crown, it is possible that you may have disturbed a nesting pigeon. Look closely, and if you spot a nest, please do not disturb it. Just make regular but discreet observations.

These birds usually lay two white eggs. In the first nesting both eggs hatched and the two nestlings eventually fledged. With the second nesting only one bird survived as one of the two eggs was displaced when the parent bird flew off in fright when I walked by the tree earlier on.

Examining the nest after it had been abandoned, I found the periphery covered with dried faeces. Apparently the birds must have aimed outwards when they did their business while still on the nest.


Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bathing Sunbirds

Bathing Sunbirds

I have spent many a day watching beautiful sunbirds flirting about the gardens of both my grandparents at Siglap and Serangoon Gardens. I can distinguish two species - the Brown-throated Sunbird (Anthreptes malacensis) and the Olive-backed Sunbird (Nectarinia jugularis). They have stunning colours, particularly in the sunlight. They often drank nectar from the various flowering plants in both gardens.

Both my grandfathers love gardening and lovingly look after a wide variety of plants. Each evening, they watered all of them. During and after these watering periods, the sunbirds came around to bathe in the tiny pools of water collected on the leaves. They chirped while ruffling their feathers in the moisture. They seemed to really enjoy themselves.

They often fought for the best pool of water to bathe in. While taking their bath, they also dipped their bills and drank to their heart's content. The various sunbirds flew from plant to plant, bathing in each pool of water left behind after the plant watering session. Watching them flying about and playing was definitely a beautiful sight!

Contributed by Serin Subaraj, a 10 year-old naturalist.


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