“Matching trees and birds” – A birdwatcher’s response

on 27th October 2012

Traditional birdwatchers’ feathers were ruffled when David Ee’s piece “Matching Trees and Birds” appeared in The Straits Times Forum Page of 6th October 2012. There was a coordinated response – one letter appearing in the daily’s Forum Page and the other in its Online Forum on 16th October. Our rebuttal to the first appeared in the Online Forum of 20th October LINK.

The letter by Alan Owyong, currently Chairman of the Nature Society (Singapore)’s Bird Group (BG), is reproduced below.

Below are our clarifications to the inaccurate assumptions and false claim as contained in the letter, possibly due to the writer’s lack of knowledge of plants and bird behaviour:

1. The writer totally missed the point with his comment on the common mahang. No one expects that the same species of birds will be attracted to the tree if planted outside the forest. He apparently has forgotten about our extensive park connectors that can be planted with the mahang to lure woodland birds out into parks that are planted with the same tree LINK.

2. Observant birdwatchers are well aware that planting food trees outside the forest attracts less desirable birds like starlings and mynas. Just look around at our many trees that originate from the forest (eg. salam, sea apple, pink mempat, casuarina and tembusu, as well as many fig trees). And mahang is just another forest tree. Obviously the writer is unaware of the origin of our urban trees. However, these trees also attract other birds as well.

3. Yes, some of the forest plants may not grow well in open areas. But when given the right environment, like planting within a wooded park, many survive and flourish. Many of the trees in our urban areas (like those mentioned above) are living examples of forest trees thriving outside the forest.

4. Fig trees definitely have a place in our urban landscape. It needs common sense on where to plant certain species, especially the strangling figs. There is no need to plant these stranglers along roads and close to buildings.

5. I fully agreed that the best way to protect biodiversity is to conserve their habitats. Thus the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve (a primary forest) and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve (secondary forests) are protected by law.

6. To say that habitats cannot be replicated is to betray one’s ignorance of plant ecology. Obviously the writer has forgotten about the Nature Society’s media confrontation with the authorities in the 1990s when we wanted the reclaimed area of Marina South to be conserved. As the then Minister for National Development Mr S Dhanabalan rightly said in Parliament… and I paraphrase… “we reclaimed the land from the sea, plants grew, the rain came, the area became flooded, then birds arrived… and the Nature Society wanted us to conserve Marina South.” This was when the society lost credibility. A number of such habitats with rich bird diversity were subsequent “created” when other areas were reclaimed.

7. Isolated patches of wooded areas, which the society (specifically the Bird Group and the Conservation Committee) was then also clamouring for conservation (albeit unsuccessfully) just because there were plentiful birds, can also easily be recreated within a decade or so by simply leaving bare land to regenerate naturally.

8. In retrospect, the Nature Society was naïve then but hopefully more enlightened now. However, there is nothing wrong in trying to improve our urban biodiversity with planting new and untried tree species. After all we have been doing exactly that for decades.

9. There is a database maintained by NParks based on lists of plants complied in the 1990s by Dr Christopher Hails. These may need to be updated to serve our current needs. But in our more than three decades of close involvement with the Nature Society, we have yet to come across any plant-based list for birds actually compiled by the society, let alone by birdwatchers – a list of food plants for the larvae of butterflies yes, but definitely no list of trees for birds. The writer may be referring to the NParks’ list obtained by the late Clive Briffett LINK from Dr Hails and used extensively by the Bird Group. But to claim this list as the Nature Society’s is patently untrue.

5. For the information of the writer, out list of plant-bird interaction will definitely supplement existing databases, if not replace them with more updated information. We welcome birdwatchers from the Bird Group contributing their observations on how birds interact with plants in an effort to make our final list as complete as possible. Getting them actively involved in this aspect of bird behaviour would definitely broaden their perspective of birds in general.

YC Wee
October 2012

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

5 Responses

  1. Just how creditable is the Nature Society of Singapore ? Why is / who bought their hq office in geylng ? Are they really authority in such matters or only pilitik with the likes of Grant Pereira, SEC ? So many self- proclaimed “experts” fighting for nature,…..

    1. Re credibility and how the NSS ended up in Geylang, the answer should come from NSS itself – if a spokesperson is forthcoming. As to the “experts”, it is only fair to say that most of the members as well as leaders are only citizen scientists. They do a useful service, collecting information for scientists. However, when a few act as if they are “experts” in their field, problems arise. As the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And this becomes obvious in the two letters to The Straits Times…

  2. Please don’t confuse the birds, they are a happy lot singing beautiful songs wherever they are, forests or parks.Hold up your binoculars and enjoy looking at them. The beautiful birds don’t know what u have done for them. Thank you.

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