Tribute to a Great Birdwatcher: Guy Charles Madoc (1911-1999)

on 7th February 2011

This post is a 100 year anniversary tribute to a great birdwatcher: Guy Charles Madoc (1911-1999), whose work has inspired others to share in the wonder of these creatures. The picture below of Madoc with friends is courtesy of Madoc’s daughter, Fenella Davis.

“We were recently delighted to be in touch with Guy Charles Madoc’s family, first through his grandson and then with his daughter. They mentioned that it has been 100 years since his birth and this has prompted the writing of this small tribute to Madoc.

“GC Madoc was one of the pioneers in bird watching in Peninsular Malaysia who wrote a lovely book on birds in our region – An Introduction to Malayan Birds by GC Madoc, Malayan Nature Society, 1947, revised 1956(1). These were actually his second and third editions of the book. The first edition of the book he wrote was while imprisoned in [Singapore’s] Changi Prison during the Second World War (he served both the British & Malaysian Governments in the intelligence and security areas). That first edition, published in May 1943, was limited to one copy (above). It was typed on paper stolen from the Japanese commandant’s office, with a ‘secret typewriter’, and circulated widely in the prison. Having recently published a book on birds(2) we recognise how much effort goes into the writing and production of such work, even more in Madoc’s time.

What makes Madoc so special?
“There have been a number of ‘pioneers’ in bird watching in Peninsular Malaysia who wrote what they observed and shared their love of God’s creatures. The ones that we know best from their written work are Robinson & Chasen (1927-1939)(3), GC Madoc (1947) (right), MWF Tweedie (1970)(4) and AG Glenister (1971)(5). The beauty of Madoc is that his descriptions of birds and their behavior were so apt and delightful that they stimulated the interest of many to watch birds further. The Malayan Nature Society, in their 1976 reprint of Madoc’s book say ‘There has been a steady demand for the book over the years, … It seems desirable that this book, which may now be regarded as a classic, should again be available…’

“Although there have been a number of books since, most focus on field identification and do not spend sufficient time on describing the birds in any great depth, information that many desire. What makes bird watching so fascinating is not the identification or photography of another ‘new’ bird but the fascinating discovery of more about a single bird, even a ‘common’ one (there are no common birds!). Madoc was one of the first to encourage ‘depth’ in bird watching.

‘Madoc himself says, in the preface to the revised edition of his book (1956), ‘I hope someday it (his book) will be superseded by a Nature Society publication in which the pooled knowledge of all Malaya’s ornithologists will be presented comprehensively …’ Fortunately we recently had two excellent publications in this form by David R Wells(6). Some of the information in these volumes have come from Madoc’s observations – his 8 volumes of field notes were bequeathed to the British Natural History Museum in London.

“To summarise, Madoc inspired us to look deeper at birds, see their behaviour and character. Hence my wife and I have been cultivating a ‘friendship’ with birds for much of our adult lives. I often think that I am following in his footsteps.

“Madoc has the distinction of having a bird named after him and rightly so for all his work. The picture shows a female Madoc’s Blue Rock Thrush (Monticola solitarius madoci) (below right).

“I would like to end this dedication with a poem. In my watching of birds over most of my lifetime, I have had a recurring and evolving ‘prayer/poem of the heart’. I initially titled it ‘A Bird Watcher Prayer’ or ‘A Bird Photographer’s Prayer’. But as time went by I think of it as ‘A Bird Friend or Lover’s Prayer’. I have never written this ‘prayer/poem’ down before (and it comes in various forms in my heart) but can think of no better person to dedicate it to than Madoc.

A Bird Friend or Lover’s Prayer/Poem
(a.k.a. A Bird Watcher Prayer)

Dear Lord, please at least grant me a glimpse of this bird,
a fleeting glimpse will be sufficient.
And just a blur digital image will suffice,
just to show I spotted it, please Lord.

Oh thank Lord, but could I just get a better look
and even more a good picture, just one will do.
Yes, preferably like one of those pictures,
you know, where the eye and feathers are delightfully in focus!

Ah that was good, but could I just get a short video recording…
and a view of nesting…
and a picture of juveniles…
and a recording of calls….
And more and more…

Dear Lord, all this struggle and ‘kiasu’ attitude is wearing me down.
There is no competition here, only reality.
It doesn’t matter that I do not see the bird, not even a glimpse.
Just to know it has a safe habitat, is continuing to flourish, is a joy to my heart.
May these creatures that you made with such beauty and diversity continue to exist.”

Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS & Datin Dr Swee-Im Lim
Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia
January 2011

We are indebted to Fenella Davis (Madoc’s daughter) for her kindness to provide and allow us to use images of her father and his first edition book (only copy). I have long hoped to see this book and am delighted to be able to catch a glimpse.

Picture of Madoc and friends and front cover of 1st edition of Madoc’s book are courtesy of Madoc’s daughter, Fenella Davis, who retains the copyright. The copyright of the female Madoc’s Blue Rock Thrush image belongs to Dato’ Dr Amar-Singh HSS.

GC Madoc, An Introduction to Malayan Birds, Malayan Nature Society, 1947, revised 1956 with drawings by BD Molesworth. A gem of a book. Available from Nature Owlet shop at Malaysian Nature Society office KL.
2. Amar-Singh HSS, A Friendship with Birds – A Guide to the Identification & Appreciation of Common Birds in the Gardens & Cities of Peninsular Malaysia, 2009.
3. Robinson & Chasen, Birds of Malay Peninsula Vols 1-4 (1927-1939).
4. MWF Tweedie, Common Birds of the Malay Peninsula, Longman, 1970.
5. AG Glenister, The Birds of the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and Penang, Oxford University Press, 1971.
6. David R Wells. The birds of the Thai-Malay Peninsula, Volume 1 (1999), Volume 2 (2007).

If you like this post please tap on the Like button at the left bottom of page. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors/contributors, and are not endorsed by the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM, NUS) or its affiliated institutions. Readers are encouraged to use their discretion before making any decisions or judgements based on the information presented.

YC Wee

Dr Wee played a significant role as a green advocate in Singapore through his extensive involvement in various organizations and committees: as Secretary and Chairman for the Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), and with the Nature Society (Singapore) as founding President (1978-1995). He has also served in the Nature Reserve Board (1987-1989), Nature Reserves Committee (1990-1996), National Council on the Environment/Singapore Environment Council (1992-1996), Work-Group on Nature Conservation (1992) and Inter-Varsity Council on the Environment (1995-1997). He is Patron of the Singapore Gardening Society and was appointed Honorary Museum Associate of the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum (LKCNHM) in 2012. In 2005, Dr Wee started the Bird Ecology Study Group. With more than 6,000 entries, the website has become a valuable resource consulted by students, birdwatchers and researchers locally and internationally. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent those of LKCNHM, the National University of Singapore or its affiliated institutions.

Other posts by YC Wee

9 Responses

  1. We owe such men immense gratitude for their contribution to our knowledge and enjoyment of the creatures around us

  2. Madoc’s book is one of the very few that looks at birds beyond the plumage. I have found it extremely useful as a reference when writing on bird behaviour. My copy dates back to 1961 when I was studying biology in the then University of Malaya in Singapore.

  3. haha ! So it wasn’t just Japanese spies who used birdwatching as a cover for their activities ! Maybe there is some correlation between the skills required to draw inferences about birds from watching them from afar, and watching people.

  4. Some more comments about this man I admire and the first edition that I learnt from his daughter Fenella Davis:
    1. The preface to the 1st edition, written in Changi Gaol 1943, was “a bit faint as the typewriter ribbon was running out!”

    2. The front cover of the 1st edition, in red leather, “was taken from the seat of a wrecked car in Singapore City and bound by 2 French POWs who were book-binders!”

    3. The image of Madoc was taken at Pulau Aur (off Johore coast) in 1953. “3rd from left is Madjid, my father’s ‘right-hand man’ in bird exploits.”


  5. I am glad to write a tribute to the late G.C. Madoc, who while serving in pre-independent Malaysia (then British Malaya), wrote the “bible” of birds of Malaysia.
    I still consider Guy Madoc’s bird book to be the best ever written about Malaysian birds. This fine book has not be surpassed. I look forward to the day when his book could be revised by a Malaysian ornithologist, while maintaining the same accuracy as Guy Madoc. This Britisher had served Malaysia well in the past age with his accurate and observative book on birds of this country. May his soul rest in eternal peace now…!

  6. I am delighted to have found your blog.
    I’m researching the illustrator of Madoc’s book, D. B. Molesworth, who was a doctor in Malaya pre- and post-WWII, and a fellow internee in Singapore with Madoc.
    I have copies of several bird illustrations done by Molesworth in captivity and would very much like to hear from anyone who knows more about him, especially Madoc’s daughter Fenella Davies, please do get in touch.
    Thank you.

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