Is it desirable to tame birds?

posted in: Miscellaneous, Parrots | 14

The first part of the series by aviculturist Lee Chiu San deals with whether birds can be tamed and whether they will remain tamed. This second of the 3-part series deals with whether it is desirable to tame birds. Whether attempts should be made to tame wild birds will be looked into in part three.

“I will share some purely personal views.

“My family kept pets (including birds) even before I was born. I have had my own pet birds since my early teens.

“In the last 50 years there have almost always been songbirds in my house. Most of these were shamas, Oriental Magpie Robins (Copsychus saularis) or doves.

“I feel that I gave the birds a better life than they could have enjoyed outside. The accommodation I provided, whether in aviaries or flight cages, was spacious and the birds were well-fed. In the wild, shamas and magpie robins are solitary and extremely territorial, having little, if any interaction with conspecifics. The confines of where they were kept simply represented the territories they would have held in the wild. It will be difficult to convince me that pet birds of these species are less happy in an aviary than in a jungle.

“One of my main objectives in keeping birds is to achieve captive breeding. Before retiring, I was a manager in a multinational company and had been posted for long tours of duty in less-developed countries.

“There I saw environments being devastated. While purists may decry the removal of wildlife from their natural habitat, I see no alternative except to attempt captive breeding. I am not about to organise a revolution to change the governments of those countries. Neither am I in a position to educate their entire populations on the desirability of long-term environmental sustainability.

“My doves were selectively-bred domestic stock quite accustomed to aviary life. Some of my shamas also bred in the aviary.

“I also attempted to breed Straw-Headed Bulbuls (Pycnonotus zeylanicus) and did manage to get a pair to lay. However, none of the eggs hatched. I know that this is a threatened species, but its habitat is being destroyed in neighbouring countries. If no attempts at all are made to achieve captive breeding, how can we ever succeed?

“Thankfully, this species is becoming more established in Singapore, where wildlife and the environment do enjoy some degree of protection.

“When I used to live in Sembawang, where there was a wild population of Straw-Headed Bulbuls, half-a-dozen birds that did not settle into my breeding program were allowed to become free-flying. I believe that they eventually joined the wild population.

“Now let’s talk about birds that would be difficult for the average person to keep. Top on my list would be the large cockatoos (left). I speak from very bitter experience having had a Blue-Eyed Cockatoo (Cacatua opthalmica), a number of the more common Cockatoos (sulphurea and eleonora) and most difficult of all, a number of molluccans.

“Wild-caught cockatoos show very clearly that they miss their flock and their freedom. Hand-raised cockatoos first seduce fanciers with their affectionate ways before the start of a stormy relationship with overdoses of demanding behaviour, destruction, jealousy and guilt.

“All tame cockatoos demand lots of attention and companionship. They want to be with their flock (human) all the time. They have beaks like metal cutters, which they use all the time. So when they are with people, they MUST be supervised. One bite is all that is needed to break a handphone into half.

“They are big enough to do real damage, and take intense dislikes to other pets and some people. The objects of their jealousy can be in real danger.

“There is no easy solution such as locking the cockatoo away. They can really make you feel guilty with their pitiful moans and baby voices repeating tender calls such as “Love you daddy, I’ve been a good boy,” followed by really heartrending cries.

“If these do not work, the screaming starts. And cockatoos can really scream – for hours on end.

“Covering the bird, or moving it to an out-of-the-way, soundproof location will often trigger self-mutilation. They will pluck their own feathers to the point of baldness, and bite their own flesh until dripping with blood.

“I believe that no ordinary person with a career and a home in Singapore has the time nor the space today to properly cope with keeping large cockatoos.

“I could cope previously because I lived on an estate, the land of which has since been acquired by the government. One of my birds has gone with a friend to America. Another was donated to the Jurong Bird Park. And a third is with a friend who has one of the few remaining farms in Singapore.

“I have heard that lovers of large parrots find the macaws (right) more manageable, but I cannot speak from experience. Another problem with all these birds is that they live a very long time. Keeping one involves a big commitment, of at least 30 years or more.

“If you really must keep a parrot, keep a medium-sized or small one. If there is such a thing as an ideal pet parrot, I believe that the cockatiel fits the bill. All the stocks in pet shops nowadays are aviary-bred. If hand-raised from young, they stay tame and affectionate throughout their lives. They are undemanding as far as food is concerned. Their calls are not unpleasant. They whistle, sing and talk. And they usually live only a dozen years. Though some have exceeded that lifespan by more than twice, those are exceptional.

“I will also mention my personal favourites in the parrot tribe, lories and lorikeets, but have to caution that these are not for everyone. For their size, they are very aggressive, and generally create havoc in mixed-species aviaries.

“They are extremely active, and do not take kindly to being kept in cages. Though not as destructive as the large parrots, they are messy. This subdivision of the parrot tribe lives on soft and liquid food. Some genera, such as Charmosyna, have very specialised diets requiring expensive ingredients that must be mixed fresh twice per day.

“All lories and lorikeets have the ability to squirt their fluid droppings with the frequency and enthusiasm of a Thai participating in the Songkran festival.

“Unscrupulous vendors will assure pet buyers that lories can be converted to seed or pellet diets, resulting in dry and fewer droppings.

“This is a cruel change that will eventually result in the slow and painful demise of the bird, usually through malnutrition or kidney failure, months later. A healthy lory should live at least 20 years.

“Why do I like lories and lorikeets? They are personable and friendly, but do not get so attached to people to the extent that they forget that they are birds (as cockatoos are wont to do). They form strong pair bonds – and I can leave my lorikeets to amuse each other, without having to feel guilty about not spending enough time with them.

“Some species are also on the endangered list – and I take pride in having coaxed them to breed in my aviaries.”

Lee Chiu San
May 2010
(Images by YC Wee)

14 Responses

  1. Hendra

    When you trying to captive breeding straw headed bulbul and the egg didn’t hatch. Make sure they are male n female. And most important, they want to pair n mate. You can see it with their pairing song. Two bird sing together but sound as one bird. I have 5 pairs in my home here in java indonesia. And they breed well. I would be glad to share any information that I know about Straw headed bulbul captive breeding for conservation in singapore

    • YC

      Sure Hendra, if you have photos and information, please send them to me ( for posting in the website. Thanks.

  2. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Hendra,

    Thanks for being willing to share your knowledge. Yes, I was quite sure that I had male and female straw-headed bulbuls because I paid great attention to their song. Too bad the breeding efforts were not successful. I think the problem might have been because my birds were wild-caught adults, and were very skittish. They probably did not spend enough time brooding the eggs.

    • Hendra

      When the egg did not hatch, do you check inside the egg whether there is embrio or not? I just want to make sure your birds were mating or not.

  3. Hendra

    Straw headed bulbul as I know by years of experience, always spend enough time brooding their eggs. If there is anything that disturb them, they usually throw away their eggs from the nest or kill their chicks. The male usually done this. If there is an embrio in their eggs but not hatch after 14 days, maybe one of your birds is in molting condition. Do you still keep your straw headed b?

  4. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Hendra,

    Thanks for your replies. Unfortunately, I no longer have access to breeding stock of straw-headed bulbuls. Due to the bird-flu scares, import of birds into Singapore is now very tightly controlled. As you are aware, straw-headed bulbuls come from areas where bird flue is endemic.

    There are still a few birds in aviaries in Singapore, but most are very old. The owners do not want to sell, or if they do, ask prices of US$2,000 and above for each bird. Yes, at these prices there is probably some poaching of the local Singapore population, but I do now want to be involved in any of these illegal activities.

    • Hendra

      US$ 2000 for straw headed bulbul??? Amazing. In here the price is US$ 250 for one month old chick. And US$ 350 for adult bird. That’s the price for captive breeding bird. Wild-caught could be cheaper. What kind of bird do you breed now? Perhaps one day I can visit your place..
      Actually I just got back from singapore last week… Usually once a year I go visit your country. Singapore is a comfortable country. I think that would be more comfortable with the straw headed bulbul sing upon the big trees of singapore. Nice to know you Mr.Lee. You can stop by to vjsit my little farm if you come to Indonesia.

  5. Andy

    Disgusting. Straw-headed Bulbul is threatened, but not because of habitat destruction. It is threatened because of the wild bird trade. Because of people like you. You should be arrested.

    • Hendra

      I think there’s some misunderstanding here. We’re talking about conservation of straw headed bulbul in singapore. If the conversation comes to the bird price in the market, about how high it is, it doesn’t mean that I’m a bird trader… I’m not trying to sell or buy birds. We’re just talking about conservation. Maybe you should think first before you say something…

      • Andy

        Nothing you are talking about is remotely related to conservation. You are discussing keeping straw-headed bulbuls as pets. I have done exactly as much thinking as I need to. The pet trade in birds in Asia is a huge drain on wild bird populations, the prices you quoted prove this. Anytime someone is willing to pay that much for something it means it is worth a villagers time to go out and capture it. As I said before, disgusting. Being a trader, or a keeper (as you clearly are), you bear responsibility.

  6. Lee Chiu San

    I feel that Andy should understand the situation better before he gets so worked up. I have worked in Indonesia, Malaysia and China, countries where bird-keeping (and bird-eating) are part of the culture. And where law enforcement can be flexible.

    Habitat destruction is also large-scale in these places. Andy should go to see for himself, as I have done.

    As I have stated, captive breeding seems to be the most viable alternative. If a bird is going to be eaten or captured because the area in which it lives is going to be cleared, I prefer that the bird resides in my aviary.

    I know for a fact that straw-headed bulbuls are edible and tasty because when I was a child 60 years ago, the people in Serangoon, Punggol and Pulau Ubin used to shoot and eat them. along with the yellow-vented bulbuls.

    I suppose that this is still being done in Indonesia today. But if someone offers a trapper US$250, he would keep the bird alive, rather than eat it.

    As for the prices I mention, those are for information only, to give an idea of the sums quoted in the market. Andy should read what I have written in the first part of the main article above. I made my living as a car trader, not a bird trader. I kept birds as a hobby, never as a business. There is no way in the world that bird-breeding can be profitable in a suburban garden in Singapore where the land costs over $500 per square foot (at that time, double that today) and each of my four aviaries takes up about 100 square feet.

    I would like to hear from Andy if he has any better suggestions on how to stop the habitat destruction, and the birds from being eaten, apart from a captive-breeding program.

    • Andy

      Just so you know I have worked on birds in SE Asia for 4 years. So I do know what I am talking about. Captive-breeding is an excuse to keep birds. If your interest is in conservation, you should devote your time and energy into conserving habitat and educating the local population. Keeping birds creates a market, a market creates hunters, and hunters catch birds and remove them from the forest. It is as simple as that. My suggestions? Protect land, and educate the public.

      A last question; how many birds in your “captive-breeding programme” have been reintroduced into the wild to augment viable populations? I suspect the answer is zero. If you like keeping birds, fine, say so. But do not use conservation as an excuse. It’s an old, dying habit throughout the world and the majority of the world has realized that keeping wild birds is distasteful and a threat to wild populations. Please join us in the 21st century.


  7. Lee Chiu San

    Dear Andy,

    It is not my intention to use this website for heated arguments. The moderator of this forum has known me for perhaps 50 years, since he was a tester for woodcraftsmen skills, and I was a boy scout in school. We are both retirees, and I trust that he will vouch for my sincerity in promoting conservation – not only of birds, but in other areas as well.

    During my career, I have run fairly large business units and have been involved in negotiations with various government bodies both in Singapore and abroad.

    While I fully agree that we should fight for habitat protection and educate the public not to capture and kill birds, the reality is that whenever economics clashes with conservation, the latter usually loses. In all the years in which I have signed petitions and joined movements to preserve wild areas in Singapore, I can think of only three unqualified successes – Lower Pierce Reservoir, Chek Jawa, and Sungei Buloh.

    In other cases, token changes were made to plans already decided upon, and after a few gestures supposedly to placate nature lovers, (think Bukit Brown) the development plans went ahead.

    Also, the culture of bird keeping is ingrained among both the Chinese and Malays. Even attempts by governments to change culture do not often succeed. I am not so presumptious as to think that I can succeed where governments fail.

    Yes, I admit that I have enjoyed keeping birds. As I stated in the above article which I provided to this website, I have also experimented with having a free-living population of pet birds. Please read all three sections to learn of the problems I encountered.

    It might interest you to know that our website moderator has been honoured by a government organisation for his contributions to botany. This same organisation has given me great support in terms of facilities and staff to re-introduce native fishes into Singapore – and birds are next on the program.

    We can do this within a protected environment, within grounds patrolled by authorised security staff – so we expect a better chance of success than I had in my suburban garden.

    And might I request that you first read my article above to prevent yourself from making statements that could be incorrect. You will notice that I have mentioned releasing my own stock of straw-headed bulbuls into the wild. Others that I have re-introduced include magpie robins, a few shamas, fairy blue birds and lots of the doves that bred in my aviaries.

    While your passion for nature preservation is commendable, may I suggest that you temper it with the pragmatism dictated by practical realities and understand that even though our methods differ, some(I do not claim all) aviculturalists are actually working towards the same aim as you are.

    • YC

      As moderator I can vouch for whatever Chiu San has written above. And yes, fighting for habitat conservation in Singapore has been an uphill battle. As President of the Nature Society (NSS) during the early 1990s, I was leading the fight against the proposal to use a patch of Nature Reserve for a golf course. Fortunately we had the public behind us and eventually government backed down. This is the only instance where NSS (or anyone else) succeeded in discouraging govt from destroying any habitat. Sg Buloh is again the only instance where NSS succeeded in getting govt to conserve a habitat. As for Chek Jawa, it was the groundswell of public opinion made govt to have second thought.

      Both sides have set forth their arguments on the subject and at this point we wish to close the debate. Thanks to all the parties involved for a lively discussion.

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