Observing birds… according to J Delacour

“I found your latest blog entry, Birding in Singapore and the challenges of the 21st century, fascinating, more so in that it triggered off many old memories from my childhood days.

“Probably the first serious birding book I acquired while still in junior school was Delacour’s Birds of Malaysia (1947). It did not contain any pretty pictures, just a few black-and-white line drawings. However, in his introduction, on pages 5 and 6, he covered what he considered to be critical needs for the study of Malaysian birds. By the way, this was with reference to geographical Malaysia, not the current political entity.

“These recommendations have formed the framework of the objectives I constantly try to meet during my work as a field ornithologist.

“These pages, reproduced below, verbation, might be of interest to your readership. It is extracted from Delacour (1947), where the author uses Mayr (1945) as his source material in the opening paragraph.”

Slim Sreedharan
17th March 2010


Too little is known about the life histories of most Malaysian birds. To fill this gap, every amateur can make observations that are of the greatest value and interest to science. As a guide for bird students, the following list of suggestions is reprinted from Mayr (1945):


(1) In what kind of habitat does a species occur (rain forest, forest edge, native gardens, grasslands, swamps)?

(2) At what height is it usually found (treetops, lower branches, undergrowth of forest, small trees outside of forest, ground)?

(3) Are the singing perches at the same height as the feeding places?

(4) What is the annual cycle? (Is there any evidence of a definite breeding season? Count the number of nests and eggs of every species in every month. Record at different seasons the number of songs in the first morning hour.)

(5) What is the daily cycle? (Are there any feeding or roosting flights? What birds sing during the night? What birds sing most commonly in the heat of the day?)

(6) How many birds are found in a given area? (Make an accurate census of a ten-acre area. Make a rough census of the total population of a single species on a small island.)

(7) Study the activities in flowering and in fruit trees. (How many species visit them? How long does an individual stay? How many birds are in a tree at the same time? How many come and go every ten-minute period?)


(1) Describe the call notes, the song.

(2) Describe the feeding habits. (Are insects caught by flying out from branches in the manner of flycatchers? Are they picked off leaves, off branches, or off the bark? Does any feeding take place on the ground? Are fruits swallowed whole?)

(3) Describe situation and structure of nests.

(4) Describe each species as to whether it is usually found singly, in pairs, or in flocks.

(5) Describe size and composition of bird flocks. (Follow a flock for 10 minutes or 60 minutes and record its activities. How far has it moved? Is the flock a closed unit? Does it have a leader?)

(6) Which species defend the area around the nest (territory) against other individuals of the same species? (Do males of these species occupy definite singing perches? Do singing and feeding alternate?)

(7) What share does the male take in nest building, incubation, feeding of the young? (Record actual figures of minutes spent on the nest or number of feedings per hour. Does the male incubate during the day or during the night?)

(8) How many singing males are not mated? Do more than two birds take part in the feeding of the young?

Whenever possible these questions should be answered by carefully watching a definite individual for several hours (same day or several days) and counting and recording carefully all of its activities. Additional questions can be found in Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1943}. Much of his advice is well applicable to tropical birds: see particularly chapters 3 and 4 and Appendix C.

Delacour, J. 1947. Birds of Malaysia. The MacMillan Company, New York.
2. Mayr, E. 1945. Birds of the Southwest Pacific. The MacMillan Company, New York.

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3 Responses

  1. […] Bird Ecology Study Group » Observing birds… according to J Delacour besgroup.talfrynature.com/2010/03/29/observing-birds%E2%80%A6-according-to-j-delacour – view page – cached “I found your latest blog entry, Birding in Singapore and the challenges of the 21st century, fascinating, more so in that it triggered off many old memories from my childhood days. Filter tweets […]

  2. Howard Banwell

    Very interesting indeed, and a challenge to all of us regarding making and recording detailed observations of what goes on around us in the world of nature.

    Of course there were less distractions in 1947 — no television, no internet, no mobile phones, no digital cameras, no cheap international travel (so people stayed at home to observe), and fewer 18-hour work days.

  3. Amazing stuff.


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