“I was just looking at the information regarding the Lesser Coucal (Centropus bengalensis) from Ria Tan’s webpage. This is one bird that I have not seen in a long time.
“When I first moved to Loyang in 1987, it’s distinctive three-note call was what haunted me. It was a sound that I used to hear as a kid in my grandma’s place that came from the sprawling field of lallang grass (Imperata cylindrica) beyond the boundary of our large colonial bungalow. It was beyond my territory.
“Looking out from my bedroom window in Loyang Valley, a similar big expanse of lallang filled the landscape that was part of the old Selarang Camp. A few dead trees in the middle of the lallang and that was all there was. You can even hear the lallang blades swishing in the wind. It was here that I caught my first sight of the coucal. The final link of the haunting call to the bird was when I saw it call from the dead tree in the middle of the patch.
“I really liked the graceful way the bird flies – effortlessly, just above the lallang and then just dropping right into the thick of it and disappearing.
“Since then, whenever I hear that haunting three-note call, I would park myself at the window, scanning the lallang for a fleeting glimpse of the coucal.
“After they cleared the lallang and rebuilt the camp, I heard the call no more.
“Years passed. In 1999 I was on a cab from Changi Airport on the East Coast Parkway heading towards town. Just as we reached the point where Tanah Merah Golf Club and Laguna Golf Club border the ECP, I saw a bird attempting to fly across the expressway heading for Tanah Merah’s side of the ECP. The distinctive gracefulness of the flight was unmistakable, as well as its tendency to stay low even in flight. That was its mistake.
“From the back seat of the cab, I was crossing my fingers. Its projected flight path took it right into the path of the taxi. I knew it was not going to make it. Anxious seconds passed. This was closest I had ever been to a coucal and yet I wished it was further away. The bird never knew what hit it. It hit the top right corner of the windscreen and as I turned back I wished it had hit harder. The poor bird was in its last throes of death right in the middle of the ECP. Its bright chestnut plumage that I so admired was a tangled mess flapping in the centre of the road. I wished its last moments had not been so drawn out.
“It was about that time that I had first thought of realising my lifelong dream of becoming a pilot. I sat in the taxi and thought that the bird’s dramatic end was a sign for me to forget about becoming a pilot, that you are definitely not going to make it. If it was some pigeon or mynah, I might not have taken it seriously. And if it was a crow I probably would have gone straightaway to buy a lottery ticket. But the coucal, a bird that I so admired and have not seen in ages, was a different story.”
Contributed by Jeremy Lee, image by Ashley Ng.