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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Cat kill - kingfisher

Cat kill - kingfisher

Cats are notorious for their ability to catch and dismantle birds. Many of us would have seen dead birds with their feathers torn and their bodies ripped apart. But how many of us have actually witnessed a cat kill?

On December 4th 2005 Meng & Melinda Chan actually witnessed a kingfisher being eaten by a cat. Through a pair of binoculars they spotted a kingfisher flying downwards towards the ground. Suddenly a cat jumped up and pounced on the bird. At first they thought that the bird escaped as they saw it flying away. But when they reached the scene, there was a dead kingfisher on the grass. And perching nearby was another kingfisher making alarming calls. Only then did they realize that a pair of birds was involved and one of them fell victim to the cat.

The Chans alerted Ashley Ng as they thought that birders on his Pigeon-holes e-loop might be upset by the incident and the gruesome images they managed to capture on their camera. But birders are tougher than that and so I persuaded Melinda to share the experience and images, and this is how this posting comes about.

Other reports of cat-kill:
Keith Hiller’s cat regularly caught mynas, doves and once even a sunbird. Apparently they just do it for fun, not for food. On the other hand Jeffrey Low’s cat caught an unknown species of bird, ate and regurgitated it. Lim Jun Ying’s pet Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) was mauled by a cat while still in the cage. On the other hand Jeremy Lee’s experience is a little mysterious. He relates how, when he was a kid he regularly collected headless Javan Munias (Lonchura leucogastroides) decapitated during the night while still in their cage. Was it a cat? An owl perhaps?

Contributed by Meng & Melinda Chan
Additional input by Keith Hiller, Jeffrey Low, Lim Jun Ying and Jeremy Lee

Further comment by R. Subaraj: When I lived in Siglap and had cats as pets, they would bring in a variety of birds. The usual targets would be the Eurasian Tree Sparrows (Passer montanus) (which I observed one of my cats eating twice) and Olive-backed Sunbirds (Nectarinia jugularis). They would also kill the Changeable Lizards and geckoes, also eating the latter. The most surprising bird one of my cats brought in one day was a dead female Pink-necked Green Pigeon (Treron vernans). As this is normally a bird that stays high up in the trees, I can only guess that this individual was ill and vulnerable for it to be caught by a cat.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Mistletoes 2: Seeds and germination

Mistletoes 2: Seeds and germination

Mistletoes are commonly seen growing on our wayside trees. Their fruits are small, oval, one-seeded and berry-like. The seeds are enclosed by a viscid layer of mucilage that pass out intact after being swallowed by sunbirds and flowerpeckers. Usually these sticky seeds need to be scraped off the bottoms of these birds when they defecate.

Angie Ng describes in detail how a male Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (Dicaeum cruentatum) deposited a string of sticky seeds on her sui mei (Wrightia religiosa) plant thus:

“After comfortably positioning itself transversely across the branch, it turned its head… then it awkwardly stretched apart its legs, lowered its little body for a second or two and with a swagger, it moved a few steps to the left. With that quick swaggering action it wiped off a string of six gluey mistletoe seeds onto the branch of my sui mei.”

Other reports state that these birds deposit the seeds by wiping them off their beaks after pecking on the fruits.

In Australia the main dispersal agent of mistletoes is the Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum). This bird has a modified gut that allows the seeds to be excreted within 25 minutes of ingesting without any damage. The birds are said to perch along branches, rather than across them like most other birds, so that when the seed is excreted, it falls onto the branch upon which the bird is perched. The seeds are excreted in a stringy mass of three to five seeds.

Lim Kim Chuah has sourced a Tropical American reference that claims “A sticky layer of viscin surrounds each seed, and it is impregnated with toxic chemicals that offer some protection to the seed and at the same time help to speed passage through the gut… As long as the viscin layer is undamaged, the seeds remain viable and the bird is not poisoned.” I have not been able to locate any work of this nature on our tropical species of mistletoes nor any reference on their poisonous nature. However, there is reference to the toxicity of the American species, especially the leaves, stems and fruits.

Once stuck to the surface of a developing branch, the mistletoe seed will send out a small shoot with a bulbous tip. This tip expands to form a 'holdfast' that eventually enters the host’s internal tissues to reach the sapwood, from where moisture and minerals are extracted. As the mistletoe grows, the primary holdfast enlarges in size to send out runners that develop secondary holdfasts at intervals.

Image of sticky seed by Angie Ng, others by YC


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

House Crows’ nests

House Crows’ nests

There have been a number of postings on nesting crows recently - by Angie, Tang and Eu Heng. And we have published images of their large nests. Below is a detailed account of the nests and readers can always give feedback of other nesting materials.

House Crows (Corvus splendens) build their nests firmly lodged between the branching forks of tall trees and the frond bases of tall palms. The description of a nest I am giving comes from one dislodged from a ceram palm (Rhopaloblaste ceramica) in my garden. Normally the crows recycle the materials from the old nest to construct a new one. And unless someone climbs up the tree or palm and remove a disused nest, there would be no opportunity to examine one closely.

The large, crude nest is composed of interlocking twigs, in this case coming mainly from the many mempat trees (Cratoxylum formosum) lining the road fronting my house. Together with these twigs are pieces of wires of various lengths and thickness picked up from my garden, no doubt to strengthen the nest structure.

The nest measures 40 cm x 40 cm and 30 cm deep. Sitting in the centre of this massive structure is a neat shallow cup lined with light brown plant fibres, probably palm fibres.

In the nest observed by Hung Bun Tang there were knotted lengths of thick plastic. These are the pieces attached to the infernal smoky petrol-driven machines of our wayside grass cutters, as KF Yap so aptly put it. The sweeping, circular motion of the pieces cuts off the grass blades. These plastic pieces often get detached, sometimes hitting passersby. The crows have obviously found a new use for these discarded plastic pieces.

Straycat in his blog recounts the time when clothes hangers disappeared from his backyard. The mystery was solved when a nearby House Crows’ nest was seen with hangers jutting out from the side.

House Crows do not normally reuse the old nest after one breeding session. But they reuse the nesting materials. In my two palms they would collect the materials from the old nest in one palm to build a new nest in nearby palm. This went on every three months for more than two years before they decided to move on to another area to breed.

Both parent crows help to construct the nest. Sometimes they are assisted by other crows. The breeding female usually takes care of the lining of the nest towards the end of the building session. In this respect they behave just like the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos).


Sunday, January 22, 2006

The World Is My Saucer! - an allegorical tale

The World Is My Saucer! - an allegorical tale

The black birds wasted no time swooping down from nowhere and claiming ownership of their spoil. First there were four; then there were three. Soon the jostling settled down to two; each lording their own half of the saucer with an air of superiority. 'The world is MY saucer!' uttered the pair instinctively at the same time.

As one would imagine, the posessive 'MY' just did not sound right. After all, there were not one but two birds. It did, however, clearly betrayed the other's heart -- like black against white.

Like it or not, they knew they needed each other to keep other birds away. It was obviously not an alliance made in heaven.

The birds were nonetheless embarassed at their own tactless display and tried to make less of it.

"Hey, we are * Mynas, aren't we?! 'My' here, 'my' there... we My-nas just can't get it out of our system, ha ha!", chuckled one uneasily. "Ya, right!... ha ha!" half-grinning the other in agreement. In any case, it was time to eat. They turned immediately to the leftover food inside the saucer.

But lo, to their greatest dismay, something had beaten them to it -- or so they thought. It was moving steadily round and round inside their precious saucer.

The two black birds began pecking at it instinctively; slowly at first, as they did not know what the tiny thing was. But as frustration set in, the pecking grew more frantic and vicious. A frenzy ensued. The saucer rocked erratically, and as it did so, inched closer and closer towards the edge of the table...

None of the other patrons at the open-air cafe were aware of the black birds' antics that strange morning. I did because I was watching closely from the next table. By the time I got up to leave, the two silly birds were still fighting off the intruder. So if you should ask me about the fate of the saucer, I wouldn't have known. Perhaps this is best left to suspense. Good short stories ought to leave room for readers to guess, I think. : )

I remembered taking one last look into the brilliant sky as I got up from my chair. The White-bellied Sea-eagle was still circling overhead -- round and round up its thermal ascent. She was truly majestic. Somehow I wished I could tell her what the two black birds had been up to. But I doubt she would be interested.

Why should anyone be bothered about free birds who chose to go after crumbs and live life no better than battery chickens? For them, the spirited flight is lost.

*Acridotheres javanicus

©Joseph Lai 2003

The above first appeared in Joseph's Webpage Eart-h and is posted here with his kind permission.


Mistletoes 1: The plants

Mistletoes 1: The plants

Mistletoes are parasitic or semi-parasitic plants that grow on the branches of trees. They are unlike the bird's-nest (Asplenium nidus) and staghorn (Platycerium coronarium) ferns that depend on the trees mainly for support. These epiphytes do not demand anything else from the host, neither water nor nutrients. Mistletoes on the other hand are very different from epiphytes. These are parasitic plants that draw water and nutrients from the host, to eventually stunt or even kill the host plant.

In Singapore there used to be two main genera of mistletoes, Loranthus and Viscum. Then Loranthus was split into six genera, but not Viscum. All these mistletoes (except one species of Viscum) have green leaves, meaning that they are able to photosynthesise and manufacture their own food. Thus they are termed semi-parasitic.

Mistletoes are important bird plants. Their flowers produce copious nectar that attract a host of butterflies. And also birds like sunbirds and flowerpeckers. Their succulent berries similarly attract many species of birds.

Incidentally, the Australian Christmas tree (Nuytsia floribunda) is a member of this family of plants. It is the largest mistletoe in the world, growing independently into a 8 metre tall tree. If you visit Western Australia during December and January, you can marvel at the glorious, honey-scented, orange-gold blossoms covering the entire tree, even hiding the fleshy foliage. This tree manages to grow and flower during the dry Australian summer because its roots tap onto the roots of other neighbouring plants for water. The trunk exudes a sweet, sticky gum and the young roots are peeled and eaten, tasting like sugar-candy.


Friday, January 20, 2006

I and the Bird #15: Birds on Birds

I and the Bird #15: Birds on Birds

The #15 I and the Bird carnival has the theme Birds on Birds. Our entry is Hung Bun Tang's "Tang’s nesting crows 1: Whose eggs are these?" Click on the link and enjoy.


Thursday, January 19, 2006

Tang’s nesting crows 3: The destruction of the nest and the end of the saga

Tang’s nesting crows 3: The destruction of the nest and the end of the saga

January 7th 2006 was 15 days since I first saw the three eggs in the nest. When I went out to buy groceries at around noon, I went up to my usual place to take a look at the crows’ nest. The first chick had hatched! I was excited and was wondering when the next two eggs would hatch.

I returned home at 2 pm. Quickly I took out my camera and went straight to the next block. From afar, I saw the two House Crows (Corvus splendens) hopping among the branches of their nesting tree. This looked strange. As I got closer, I was shocked to see that the whole nest had disappeared. Could it be an attack by the Asian Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea)? From the 4th level of the block, I could not see any traces or remnants of the nest. The pair of crows was calling desperately from the top of a nearby lamp-post. I decided to go down to the ground level to inspect the area beneath the tree. Yes, there was the chick, dead, of course, and a cracked egg. I didn't see any trace of the third egg.

I started to reason. It couldn't be the work of the koels. They couldn't possibly remove the whole nest. It must be people. As I looked up to the nest site, a small girl and her maid were looking out of their window on the second level, talking to each other and pointing to where the nest was. They told me it was two workers and their boss who removed the nest with a long stick with a knife attached at its end. The whole nest fell to the ground and the workers took the nest away. The maid and the small girl were also sad about this.

Well, crows are pests. What can I say?

In 1995 when we were staying in Yishun, the Town Council sent a team of workers to our estate to conduct a massive felling of rows of lovely trees, some reaching 20 m in height. The whole operation lasted one week. The Town Council explained that these trees attracted many birds (Barn Swallows, Hirundo rustica) to perch in. I moved house the next year.

Text and images by Hung Bun Tang


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Angie's crows 4: Is this the end of the crow-koel saga?

Angie's crows 4: Is this the end of the crow-koel saga?

I have given an earlier account of the series of attacks on the House Crows' nest (Corvus splendens) by Asian Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea). Well, on Wednesday 28th Dec 2005, the tenth day after they began building their nest, the crows were again seen. That morning at 8.20 am two crows stood on the branch beside their nest, cawed several times and flew off. Soon after a koel called and two females hopped cautiously from the lower branches right up to the nest. They took turns to climb in and stayed a few seconds each time before flying off.

One crow returned at 9.30 am, stood at the edge of the nest, made a 3-sec inspection and flew away. Soon after, a single female koel sneaked up to the nest, climbed in and out, and in again.

I saw a crow again at 2.10 pm when it hopped out of its nest, cawed and flew away. As the nest was unattended, two females and a male koel flew from a nearby bauhinia tree (Bauhinia sp.). A female climbed into the nest, came out and the male climbed in as if to inspect the eggs. The other female tried to get into the nest but the male charged at her while making that loud koel call. This loud call brought back a crow that chased them all away. But the crow also stayed away.

At 4.15 pm the male koel was inside the nest again for about 5 seconds before flying off. A while later a female flew up and hopped in and out of the nest several times.

At 6 pm, three koels were seen on the tree. A female's 'kuacking' brought a black bird flying in towards the tree but it was intercepted by another black bird, both flew away from the tree. Meanwhile the female koels took turns to hop in and out of the nest. The first female made one of the loudest 'kuack-kuack' sound when she hopped out of the nest (like a hen cackling after it has laid its egg). When the two black birds returned, the females flew off. One of the black birds landed on a branch near the nest, peered in and flew off again into the dark.

At 6.15 pm a broken egg shell, still moist with albumin was on the ground below the angsana tree (Pterocarpus indicus). Shell was blue-greenish with dark speckles.

The next day (eleventh day) saw batches of koels boldly, and taking their own time, hopping in and out of the unattended nest. The male koel made two visits to inspect the nest.

Are there more than a dozen koel eggs in there? If the blue-green eggs were crow eggs, then the crow had laid only 2 eggs!

The crows have since abandoned their nest! After the dramatic night raid of 27th December, no crow was seen incubating.

Everything quiet this morning, with no activities. Is this the end of the koel-crow saga? Are crows smarter than what we think? Will they not play surrogate parents anymore?

Contributed by Angie Ng, 30th December 2005
Image also by Angie.


Monday, January 16, 2006

Tang’s nesting crows 2: Yes, whose eggs were those?

Tang’s nesting crows 2: Yes, whose eggs were those?

The three eggs in the crows’ nest as seen in Tang’s earlier image, also shown here, show similarity in colour and pattern. However, one of the eggs is of slightly different shape than the other two and smaller. And according to the literature, the Asian Koel’s (Eudynamys scolopacea) egg is smaller than that of the House Crow’s (Corvus splendens). Can the smaller egg then be that of the koel’s? We need to monitor the situation and wait for the hatching. The nestling of the koel can easily be differentiated from that of the crow once feathers develop (see image of koel nestling, bottomj).

Angie found bluish shells with dark speckles as well as light cream ones at the base of the tree where the crows’ nest was the day after koels attacked the nest (see image on left as well as earlier posting. Is it possible that either the crow or the koel laid eggs of two different colours? After all, as Lin Yang Chen pointed out, there are reports of egg dimorphism among certain species of birds. Unfortunately bird watchers have yet to pay much attention to such details.

Input by Hung Bun Tang, Angie Ng and Lin Yang Chen
Images (top to bottom) by HBT, Angie and YC


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Tales of a birding pilot...

Tales of a birding pilot...

During my career as an airline pilot, I have only killed two birds, those that I know of, that is. The first was during my initial training in Seletar in a cessna. Not more than 7 hours of flying to my credit, my instructor and I were out in the training area above the catchment area doing some exercises.

We are always on the look out for Brahminy Kites (Haliastur indus), birds that often reach the heights that we fly. But we normally can avoid them. Taking a hit with a kite can be fatal to both the plane and the bird.

On that fateful flight, I saw a fast moving bird-like object from the corner of my view. If it had kept its initial heading, it would have gone right past in front without any problem. Instead it took a sharp turn and headed almost directly at the aircraft and in the final moments it pealed off to the right.

Next I heard a bang that echoed through the rear of the aircraft. We had initially thought it was some shockwave from some gun firing below or quarrying activity. But we saw no smoke or anything. And since the aircraft was ok, we carried on.

Only when we got back to the ground did we see the bloodstain on the fuselage of the aircraft. The bird has turned too late and got caught in the propeller's wash and was slammed into the fuselage of the aircraft.

My second encounter was with a swallow. It did the same stunt on the day I first had my training flight on the 747 in Changi. We were doing circuits in an empty aircraft to make sure I could land the aircraft before I was cleared for further training.

Just as I came in for a landing and passing over Pulau Tekong, another swallow did the same stunt. This time it slammed right onto the windshield on my side of the aircraft, leaving a splatter of spittle and blood on the windshield.

These speed demons of the sky never know when they have met more than their match. But for a swallow to underestimate a 747, it must be really out of its mind.

In Perth we trained at Jandakot Airport. And as luck would have it, they had a refuse dump on the end of one of the runways. Birds flocked to the dump and returned to the coast on a daily basis. We had to keep a lookout for other aircraft traffic and also dodge pelicans (Pelecanus sp.) and flocks of gulls (Larus sp.) that were frequenting the dump. The gulls were a problem at night. We could not see them until it was too late. But in the day, they were not a problem. It was the pelicans that were dangerous in the daytime. Because of their size, they had to soar on thermals to get to a good cruising height with a favourable wind to blow them to the coast. And guess where the best thermals were? Right above the hot tarmac of the runway. The birds were hard to spot from above as they were not often in huge flocks. But there had been cases where small light aircrafts collided with pelicans. And it was a miracle how the aircraft made it back on ground safely after such an impact.

Contributed by Jeremy Lee; image of Chinook by Ashley Ng.

Comments and image of goose by YC:
Air strikes of birds are commoner than we think. At the worst it results in loss of lives. Otherwise the plane needs repairs that can cost from a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars. A solitary strike with a small bird does not do much damage. A larger bird like a Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) is another matter. Most air crashes occur when a bird hits the windshield or is sucked into the engine. Most bird strikes occur at takeoff but this does not mean that there are less strikes when the plane is in the air, as many may go unreported. Military aircrafts are usually more vulnerable than commercial ones as they generally fly at lower altitudes where most birds fly as well as at higher speed.

Many methods have been used to make airports safe from birds. These include use of dogs, Peregrine Falcons and Gyrfalcons as well as playing bird distress calls.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

Termite hatch

Termite hatch

A termite hatch happens when a new generation, with wings, departs their old colony and disperse in search of a new area to begin a fresh colony. This happens when conditions are right and in the tropics it happens anytime of the year but particularly after rain. These hatches can sometimes be quite large as several colonies disperse at the same time. Usually this happens near dusk.

We often know about a hatch when large numbers of flying termites are found around bright lights and sometimes many end up in our swimming pool or bathtub. For the bird world, such hatches provide a buffet for the hawking insectivores. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to observe many a hatch on my evening walks in nature areas, golf courses and various other places. Around the forested areas of our island nation, these can be quite exciting as many woodland residents and migrants join in the feast and provide an aerial show that is a treat to watch.

Such an occasion recently occurred while I was conducting an evening bird survey at the treetop walkway at Sime Forest. From 6.00 pm onwards on December 7th, I started noticing quite a few bugs flying around. This intensified in number for the next half an hour or so. By 6.45 pm there was a huge cloud of flying termites above the walkway - the biggest hatch that I have ever encountered was fully underway.

A number of birds were wheeling around and feeding off this large flying buffet. Three Dollarbirds (Eurystomus orientalis), a few Greater Racket-tailed Drongos (Dicrurus paradiseus), a pair of Asian Fairy Bluebirds (Irena puella) and a couple of Pacific Swallows (Hirundo tahitica) were among the residents involved. Several Himalayan Swiftlets (Collocalia brevirostris), of both locally occurring races, and an Asian Drongo Cuckoo (Surniculus lugubris) were among the more expected migrants feasting as well. Surprisingly, very few Blue-tailed Bee-eaters (Merops philippinus) hawked as they flew over heading back to roost. This bird is usually one of the dominant species found at such occasions.

An Ashy Drongo (Dicurus leucophaeus) of the mouhati race (a race not previously recorded in Singapore) was also observed hawking. Also taking advantage of the easy meal were two migratory Grey Nightjars (Caprimulgus indicus) fluttering around catching termites at least a half hour before their usual dusk activity period. Interestingly, the resident Large-tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus) did not come out to feed until the normal dusk period.

Of great interest to me were the opportunist feeders - birds that did not normally hawk insects but could not resist such a bonanza of slow flying insects. These clumsily flew around trying their best at catching the termites on the wing. They included two Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa), two Large-billed Crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) and a Brahminy Kite (Haliastur Indus). They were comical to watch. The mynas did short flights through the swarm, catching what they could. The crows flew around slowly as they tried to maneuver for a meal. As for the poor Brahminy Kite, it actually tried to hover in the middle of the cloud of termites!

In all, 13 species of birds were observed taking part in the feast but everything was happening all at once that there could have been others involved. Apart from the birds, I also saw a Decorative Tiger (Ictinogomphus decoratus) dragonfly, another type of Gomphid (dragonfly) and at dusk, a Pouched Tomb Bat (Taphozous saccolaimus) also hawking the termites. So the next time that you go out for a late evening walk amidst nature, keep your eyes to the skies and you may just enjoy a unique aerial display too.

Contributed by Subaraj Rajathurai

A termite hatch is actually a nuptial flight of winged reproductive males and females that swarm out of the colony before landing on the ground below. A male and a female pair on the ground after losing their wings and then go looking for a site for the future colony. There they mate and the queen begins laying her eggs. Initially feeding the young with predigested food, both reproductive individuals will be in turn fed by the workers that develop from these eggs. The reproductive individuals have functioning eyes unlike the workers and soldiers that are blind.


Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Angie’s nesting crows 3: Who dropped these eggs?

Angie’s nesting crows 3: Who dropped these eggs?

After last night’s series of attacks by the Asian Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea) (see 2; also 1), I went downstairs this morning to survey the grounds below the tree well before the sweepers arrived. There were egg shells lying around, bluish shells with dark speckles, probably those of the crow’s.

The light cream shell with faint brown specks, seen on the lower portion of the image, was picked up yesterday around noon. I wonder whose egg was this? Could it belonged to the koel that made the dramatic attacks, missing the nest when she dropped an egg?

This morning there was always one House Crows (Corvus splendens) staying put in the nest all the time. It sat with its beak apart, shifting her position several times. It must be tedious sitting there under the hot sun! As far as I can ascertain, it only took a short break of about four seconds, leaving the nest and remaining just outside the nest, stretching itself.

At 1.00 pm its mate flew in to check on the situation, flying off almost immediately after. But a minute later it returned with some food (cannot see what it was) that it inserted into the nesting bird's mouth. Wow! I presume that was the male bringing food to the incubating female.

Quick as a wink the arriving bird took off again, to return twice. I am not able to say whether there were any exchange of food as my view was blocked by the large nest.

I was out till late tonight, and it was raining. Was there another assault?

Now at 10.10 pm, sitting at my computer, suddenly a crow cawed twice. I looked out just in time to see the foliage ruffled and a koel crying 'kweek kweek' as it fluttered downwards out of sight. Two minutes later a koel in the tree called 'kweek kweek…'. Was the Koel still in the tree? Did it drop in another egg? At 10.20 pm crow cawed again, but I did not notice any disturbance around.

The koels here seem to strike at night.

Contributed by Angie Ng, 27th December 2005; image also by Angie.


Sunday, January 08, 2006

Encounters with the Red Junglefowl

Encounters with the Red Junglefowl

In the 1990s I was a frequent visitor to Pulau Ubin, cycling around the island almost every weekend. There I had my first glimpse of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus). Back then I had thought nothing more of it than a mere chicken that looked 'more kampung' than those kampung chicken our Malay neighbours kept.

It was not until 1997 when I was there on an outward bound course that I saw a cock roosting on a tree that was about 30m high. I was wondering how the hell did it get up there, especially with all that fancy feathers that would surely ground a domestic chicken.

As if to prove a point, a few days later at a disused quarry, I saw a cock fly across the entire breadth of the lake. As it reached the other end, it actually demonstrated a graceful climb and ended up on top of a tree.

I initially mistook it for a crow that was trailing a snake it caught and having problems climbing higher and crossing the lake. But on closer observation, the chicken shape was obvious. And of course, to round it all off, the cock crowed, more than three times from its perch on the tree top.

My next encounter with the jungle fowl was in 2002. This time it was just outside my bedroom in my Loyang Valley Condo in Changi. My window overlooked Selarang camp. The old camp area in the 1980s had large patches of lallang, and lots of old trees and some dead trees as well. When the new camp was constructed, most of the birds that were there before were gone. Only recently I did I see Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) and parrots making a comeback.

On the fringe of the new camp, there are grassy slopes where people seldom wander. These slopes are on the boundary between the condo and the camp. I was woken up one morning by the loud crowing of a chicken. I immediately assumed it was one of the males from the kampung chicken that were kept by the people staying at the prison warden's quarters next to the camp.

This cock was definitely not lost. I was back there again the same time the next day. From the sound of its crow, I thought it must be quite a specimen to behold. So I sneaked out to have a look. And there it was majestically patrolling the no man's land between the camp and the condo. Again it first struck me as 'more kampung' than the average kampung chicken. I also did not discount the fact that it might be a 'fighting cock' that someone had let loose. But then it occurred to me that it might be a red jungle fowl. One of the last few that managed to survive the rapid destruction of habitat in the Changi industrial area.

So I went back to the books. The white patch on the cheek was unmistakable. But I was no jungle fowl expert. The bird disappeared for a week and then was back again at the same spot. One evening I decided to try and get real close to it by hiding below its line of sight and creeping ahead of it. And hopefully pop my head up as it strode by.

I got more than I bargained for. As I popped up my head and walked to the fence, I startled the hen and a brood of chicks. The hen made hell of a raucous and surprised me by flying vertically up 7m or more to a high branch on a tree. The cock flew straight out to the open, and made a circling climb to the top of a tree further away. The chicks really surprised me. They were no more than the size of tennis balls and they shot up to a height of about 50cm to a metre before dashing for cover. All this while the hen was making hell of a scene distracting my attention. While the chicks stayed frozen away from view.

I only managed to see the family twice more before they moved on to another part of the camp. As for myself I was too busy learning to fly and so could not investigate the surprise appearance of this family of fowl that I suspected could be the red jungle fowl (or someone's pet fighting cock).

Contributed by Jeremy Lee, images by Jacqueline Lau and Timothy Pwee; additional comments below by bird specialist R Subaraj.

Interesting account of the Red Junglefowl from Jeremy and a good record of breeding of the species on the main island of Singapore, at Loyang. This bird is believed to have colonised Pulau Ubin by flying across the Straits of Johor. And there have been a couple of villagers who actually observed them doing just that. Ubin proved an ideal habitat for these birds. As the human population on the island shrank and poaching declined, these birds have multiplied successfully and today it is found throughout the island and even on the satellite isle of Ketam.

On Tekong, it has surprisingly not been successful and apart from a couple of records, the species is absent. Habitat may be the reason though it is still a mystery.

In the early 1990s, there was a report of a flock of junglefowl at Selarang Camp in Changi and the species continues to try and colonise the main island from Ubin. I have personally recorded the species from the Loyang Camp at Cranwell Road, Changi Coastal Road and Naval Base Road at Tanah Merah.

Another recent colonisation seems to be happening on the western side of Singapore with records east to Ama Keng.


Friday, January 06, 2006

Observations on a pair of Crows’ nest

Observations on a pair of Crows’ nest

According to Laurence Kilham’s “On watching Birds” he says “almost nothing was known of life of American Crow in spite of its being among the commonest of birds.” More so in Singapore, the House Crow (Corvus splendens) is considered to be a pest and a threat to all native birds. It is regarded as public enemy number one and bounty hunters are paid according to the number of birds they shoot.

I usually would walk past a yellow flame tree (Peltophorum pterocarpum) at the corner of a car park as I entered the back of my clinic. It was on March 9, 2005 that I first noticed the presence of a nest in the canopy of the tree. How long it took to build the nest I am not sure, but it must have been quite fast, as I did not notice it before. The nest was seated on the forks of a tree branch and shaped like a bowl surrounded by twigs arranged in a circular fashion about 10 meters from the ground. My observations were made from the ground and from the landings of an adjacent Housing and Development Block. As I was not able to look into the hollow of the nest, I could not tell when the eggs were laid or when they were hatched.

It was on March 31, 22 days after I noticed the nest that I saw signs of life in the nest. Every morning at about 8.30 am when I arrived at the clinic, I would notice the pair of parents at the nest. Sometimes one of the birds would be seated in the nest. I had no idea how many eggs were laid until later when the chicks popped their heads out of the nest for me to count them.

At night I was unable to observe which parent bird sat on the nest. What I saw was a bird perched above and near to the nest. When I shone my torch the bird would fly away.

The field guides do not differentiate male and female crows but I was able to tell the sexes apart in that the female had a distinct whitish marking around the neck and was slimmer, whereas the male had a greyish neck and visibly strong neck muscles and stouter. It was the female that spent more time around the nest.

There were in all 3 chicks. The first fledged on 11 April, the second on 14 and the third on 18. On April 26 the chicks were able to fly away from the nest and disappeared for a while.

The chicks had won their ‘wings’ by flying to adjacent trees in the car park. One interesting observation was that when the chicks were about to fledge, a flock of crows came from nowhere and cawed loudly, shouting encouragement to the chicks in the nest. This occurred as each chick took its turn to fledge. That was my first encounter with cooperative rearing of the young. I did not see any crows other than the parents feeding the young in the nest. Lawrence Kilham says in his observations of the American Crow, ”The helpers, sometimes up to six or seven of them aided in all phases of nesting, from nest building to feeding the incubating female, and, after hatching, feeding the young before and after they fledged.”

The incubation period was approximately 22 days from March 9 to 21and it took 27days from March 22 to April 18 for all the chicks to fledge.

On and off for some weeks after, the fledglings would come back to their familiar surroundings on the yellow flame tree. On one occasion I witnessed the same female parent bird with its prominent whitish neck instructing a chick with a morsel of food on the floor, a personal coaching lesson, no doubt.

Three months later, on July 13, a nest appeared suddenly in the same yellow flame tree. On July 21 a pair of crows was seen going in and out of the nest each morning. I presume these were the young crows that had matured and were nesting. Then I looked at the opposite bigger tree near the rubbish depot and found another nest in the canopy. A few days later as I walked to the front of the clinic I spotted another nest in the canopy of another tree. This was the third nest and the pair of crows would fly along this flyway, visiting all the three nests. However, on September 7 the nest near the rubbish dump disappeared without a trace. On September 8 the nest in front of the clinic vanished and the next day the nest in the yellow flame tree was nowhere to be seen. I came to the conclusion that these three nests were trial nests that the pair of young crows was building.

Contributed by Dr Wu Eu Heng, images by YC & WEH

Comments by R. Subaraj: Dr Wu offers a couple of interesting views but more observations are required
before these behaviour patterns can be fully understood and taken as normal. This includes the suggested cooperative encouraging by the group of crows for the fledglings to leave their nest and the trial nests being built by what is
taken as young crows.


Thursday, January 05, 2006

Starlings and snails at Pasir Panjang Hill

Starlings and snails at Pasir Panjang Hill

The following is an account that I wrote up in the late 1980s, and came across recently when sorting out old papers.

Working in my study in the late afternoon of June 1st 1988, a tap tapping noise brought me to the window, rather expecting to see a Greater Coucal (Centropus sinensis) dealing with a garden snail/giant snail (Achatina fulica) on the path next to the garden. However, the noise was coming from what looked like an Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis) standing on a small, bricked terrace on a slope of the garden. I rushed for the binoculars and indeed there was now another AGS holding a snail shell in its beak and bashing it on the ground. After what was considered sufficient effort, it put the shell down, gripped part of the exposed snail with its beak and pulled and waved it in the air so that the shell and snail parted company and the snail disappeared into the AGS. Thereupon the two birds flew off and I sped out to gather the evidence. They had been eating the land snail Hemiplecta sp., which are flattish, about 2-2.5 cm in diameter, and 0.5 cm thick.

Once I was indoor again, the birds reassembled for the second performance, having added a third member to the cast. They were walking around on the brick terrace looking for snails under the plants and on the side of the bricks. They each found at least one snail, but one (the newcomer?) was not yet adept at bashing, and so one of the others took over and finished that snail off. Then, looking just like mynas, they walked a few feet up the short grass into the long grass by the fence, disappeared and came out one after the other with a snail, found on the concrete footing of the fence. One tapped his or her snail on the brick again. Another flew onto a bit of old pipe sticking out of the adjacent old water tank and tried tapping on that, but the snail fell off when put down.

Two evenings later, when at home in the early evening, I saw the trio (presumably the same three adult birds), plus an immature bird, repeating their dietary adventure. They foraged at the edge of the brick path, by plant pots under a jackfruit tree and in the brick terrace. In the adjacent part of the neighbour’s garden they foraged near old plant pots on a cleared patch of ground under an old flame tree. They tapped the snails on the brick path, on the wide branches of the flame tree, and on the neighbour’s tiled roof. Once the shell had been well bashed, the snail seemed to come out pretty easily. I never saw any of the birds appear to hold the shell with the foot whilst pulling the snail out (as compared with my memory of the Greater Coucal’s struggle with the much larger garden snails).

I saw and heard the starlings eating snails probably one or two more evenings, and then no more. At first I wondered why they had given up on what seemed such a good source of food. A while later, when certain plants were flourishing, I realized that were hardly any land snails around, and that the birds may well have exhausted the supply in my garden. Whether the gang of four took their skills off to benefit some other gardener, or whether they all died of liver failure, I don’t know – let alone how the first two birds got the idea to come to the ground level and take up snail whacking.

Contributed by Margie Hall


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Angie's nesting crows 2: Attack by the koels

Angie's nesting crows 2: Attack by the koels

Last evening was the sixth day since the nest was built by a pair of House Crows (Corvus splendens) (see 1). A crow was seen hopping in and out of the nest every 5 minutes. Its mate was preening itself a few branches away. Just as the former settled itself in the nest, there was a commotion.

The time was about 7.30 pm, quite dark then. I could make out a large greyish bird perched on a lower branch, slowly and deliberately flapping its outstretched wings. Then I saw another bird a few branches away doing exactly the same. Suddenly both birds appeared above the nest and there was a flurry of wings and what looked like an attack on the nest. This was followed by loud cawing, giving the impression that a crow was hurt. I could not see clearly if there were 3 or 4 birds in that mad scramble around the nest. Just as suddenly, the attacking birds flew off leaving the nesting crow still mournfully cawing away.

There was another shorter attack 15 minutes later. Then 20 minutes later I noticed another bird flapping its wings on the lower branches, but no more raids.

I presume those grey birds must be female Asian Koels (Eudynamys scolopacea), for just before 7 pm a female was chased away by a watchful crow. Also at that time there were koels calling in the nearest of the distant trees.

Tonight it happened again at 7.25 pm!

A crow had just settled onto the nest; its mate had sat in during its 5 minutes break before flying away. A minute later two koels called, and when they were a few branches away the nesting crow flew out and chased them off. The crow cawed for its mate but it was nowhere in sight. Five minutes later a koel was again seen around the nest. Again the crow flew out to chase it away. A female koel suddenly landed on the nest, flapping its wings before it too was chased away.

Did it drop an egg?

The third attempt at the nest saw the koel crying out as it was attacked by the crow. The crow cawed again for its mate after the attack.

Tonight's episode was not as dramatic as last night's. All was dark and quiet by 7.45 pm.

Contributed by Angie Ng, 26th December 2005; image also by Angie, taken on the same day at 11.50 am.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Tang’s nesting crows 1: Whose eggs are these?

Tang’s nesting crows 1: Whose eggs are these?

Around the time when Angie was monitoring a House Crows’ nest (Corvus splendens) from her apartment window, Hung Bun Tang was doing the same from his apartment balcony. With the aid of a pair of binoculars, he could clearly see a crow sitting in the nest most of the time. However, to check the contents of the nest he had to walk to the next block and station himself at the fourth level. There, he patiently waited for a strong gust of wind to move the leaves blocking his view of the nest. That was how he managed to capture the excellent images included here.

He did just that on 5th December 2005 and again the next day. After a short holiday, he again checked on the nest and my, was he surprised!

In Tang’s very own words: “There is a crow's nest near my place. I first noticed it on 5th Dec. and saw a naked chick and an egg in it. The next day when I checked it, the chick was gone and I saw only the egg. Then I went off to Taiwan for 2 weeks' holiday and returned to Singapore on 21st Dec. When I checked the nest this morning, there were 3 eggs!!! I am really puzzled.”

The most probable scenario is that an Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea) raided the nest and removed the crow’s nestling. Subsequently the koel probably laid one or even two of the three eggs he saw on 21st December. Exactly what happened, we will never know, but if he manage to keep close watch of the hatching of the three eggs, we may be able to know whether the above conjecture is true.

Contribution and images by Hung Bun Tang


Sunday, January 01, 2006

To swallow or to regurgitate seeds

To swallow or to regurgitate seeds

I was watching an Asian Glossy Starling (Aplonis panayensis) perched on the ripened fruiting bunch of my Alexandra palm (Archontophoenix alexandrae) one morning when I noticed it regurgitating a seed. This it did a few times before picking out one to swallow. The nearly rounded 10x12 mm fruit has a covering of pulp that is less than1 mm thick. This coral-red covering encloses a single seed.

Intrigued by this behaviour, I asked around but even seasoned birdwatchers could not give me an explanation. Then I stumbled upon a paper by Richard Corlett and his student on the Asian Koel (Eudynamys scolopacea).

Because frugivores generally have a reduced protein requirement, they can easily subsist on a fruit diet. Such birds also exhibit a high ingestion rate and a short gut retention time, as well as reduced loss of nitrogen through the faeces and urine. Some of these birds supplement their protein requirement with insects or the seeds in the fruits they ingest.

The study shows that Asian Koels swallow large fruits like those of Chinese fan palm (Livistona chinensis), Syzygium chumini and Arenga engleri whole. But they rapidly regurgitate the cleaned seeds, dropping them under the tree, rather than defecating them. This appears to be a common adaptation of specialist frugivores, presumably serving to reduce the weight and volume of material that must pass through the gut. On the other hand other birds peck the fruits and leave the seeds. When eating fruits like figs with small seeds, koels swallow them whole and defecate the seeds below the tree.

The intake of indigestible seeds results in extra load in the gut. The energy expenditure necessary for flight is thus increased. Additional energy may also be required to manipulate the seeds in the gut, separating them from the pulp and transporting them through the gut. Again, the presence of the indigestible seeds in the gut limits further food ingestion. This in turn reduces the rate at which food can be processed and nutrients assimilated.


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