In the 1990s I was a frequent visitor to Pulau Ubin, cycling around the island almost every weekend. There I had my first glimpse of the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus). Back then I had thought nothing more of it than a mere chicken that looked ‘more kampung’ than those kampung chicken our Malay neighbours kept.
It was not until 1997 when I was there on an outward bound course that I saw a cock roosting on a tree that was about 30m high. I was wondering how the hell did it get up there, especially with all that fancy feathers that would surely ground a domestic chicken.
As if to prove a point, a few days later at a disused quarry, I saw a cock fly across the entire breadth of the lake. As it reached the other end, it actually demonstrated a graceful climb and ended up on top of a tree.
I initially mistook it for a crow that was trailing a snake it caught and having problems climbing higher and crossing the lake. But on closer observation, the chicken shape was obvious. And of course, to round it all off, the cock crowed, more than three times from its perch on the tree top.
My next encounter with the jungle fowl was in 2002. This time it was just outside my bedroom in my Loyang Valley Condo in Changi. My window overlooked Selarang camp. The old camp area in the 1980s had large patches of lallang, and lots of old trees and some dead trees as well. When the new camp was constructed, most of the birds that were there before were gone. Only recently I did I see Hill Mynas (Gracula religiosa) and parrots making a comeback.
On the fringe of the new camp, there are grassy slopes where people seldom wander. These slopes are on the boundary between the condo and the camp. I was woken up one morning by the loud crowing of a chicken. I immediately assumed it was one of the males from the kampung chicken that were kept by the people staying at the prison warden’s quarters next to the camp.
This cock was definitely not lost. I was back there again the same time the next day. From the sound of its crow, I thought it must be quite a specimen to behold. So I sneaked out to have a look. And there it was majestically patrolling the no man’s land between the camp and the condo. Again it first struck me as ‘more kampung’ than the average kampung chicken. I also did not discount the fact that it might be a ‘fighting cock’ that someone had let loose. But then it occurred to me that it might be a red jungle fowl. One of the last few that managed to survive the rapid destruction of habitat in the Changi industrial area.
So I went back to the books. The white patch on the cheek was unmistakable. But I was no jungle fowl expert. The bird disappeared for a week and then was back again at the same spot. One evening I decided to try and get real close to it by hiding below its line of sight and creeping ahead of it. And hopefully pop my head up as it strode by.
I got more than I bargained for. As I popped up my head and walked to the fence, I startled the hen and a brood of chicks. The hen made hell of a raucous and surprised me by flying vertically up 7m or more to a high branch on a tree. The cock flew straight out to the open, and made a circling climb to the top of a tree further away. The chicks really surprised me. They were no more than the size of tennis balls and they shot up to a height of about 50cm to a metre before dashing for cover. All this while the hen was making hell of a scene distracting my attention. While the chicks stayed frozen away from view.
I only managed to see the family twice more before they moved on to another part of the camp. As for myself I was too busy learning to fly and so could not investigate the surprise appearance of this family of fowl that I suspected could be the red jungle fowl (or someone’s pet fighting cock).
Contributed by Jeremy Lee, images by Jacqueline Lau and Timothy Pwee; additional comments below by bird specialist R Subaraj.
Interesting account of the Red Junglefowl from Jeremy and a good record of breeding of the species on the main island of Singapore, at Loyang. This bird is believed to have colonised Pulau Ubin by flying across the Straits of Johor. And there have been a couple of villagers who actually observed them doing just that. Ubin proved an ideal habitat for these birds. As the human population on the island shrank and poaching declined, these birds have multiplied successfully and today it is found throughout the island and even on the satellite isle of Ketam.
On Tekong, it has surprisingly not been successful and apart from a couple of records, the species is absent. Habitat may be the reason though it is still a mystery.
In the early 1990s, there was a report of a flock of junglefowl at Selarang Camp in Changi and the species continues to try and colonise the main island from Ubin. I have personally recorded the species from the Loyang Camp at Cranwell Road, Changi Coastal Road and Naval Base Road at Tanah Merah.
Another recent colonisation seems to be happening on the western side of Singapore with records east to Ama Keng.