Photo Essays

Silent Streets: A Look at the Magpie Robin

by Wong Xinyuan, Loh Yi Fong/Nanyang Technological University

The Oriental Magpie Robin is a beloved songbird once known as the “Straits Robin” by British bird-watchers. Cultural practices of bird-watching and other ways of appreciating birdsong are traced through the changing biodiversity of a rapidly urbanising Singapore.

Silent-Streets-A-Look-at-the-Magpie-Robin

A bird chirps in its captivity in a Sembawang homeowner's flat. Years ago, this area used to be mangroves, ponds, mudflats, and grasslands. An early dawn’s bird-watch could yield fifty distinct species in the early 1970s. Might birds in the wilderness that used to exist there, have chirped similarly - and who remembers their birdsong till today?

Photo

Senoko (Sungei Sembawang) map
1990, p.97, from the Master Plan for the Conservation of Nature in Singapore, by Malayan Nature Society (Singapore Branch), ISBN 981-00-2327-8.

Birds are a part of our natural heritage. Firstly, it is not only Nature Society (Singapore) (NSS) Bird Group, the Kebun Bahru Birdsinging Club, or specialists who know bird species by name. Many older Singaporeans still have latent knowledge about birds, harkening back to their childhoods in kampongs. Secondly, Singapore is a biodiversity hotspot where birds play key roles in the ecosystem, helping to maintain them, while also connecting us to the past.

The Oriental Magpie Robin (Copsychus saularis) is a curious native species, once so common as to be known as the “Straits Robin” by British naturalists in the then Malayan Nature Society. The birdwatching community renamed the bird to Magpie Robin after realising that it was also found elsewhere beyond the Straits Settlement.¹ Among common folk, its names included the Murai-Kampung Biasa, 鹊鸲, and kuruvi. In the process of exchanging names, communities congregated to admire its magnificent birdsong.²

Image of an oriental magpie-robin, originally from Natural History Museum, Tring, United Kingdom.
</br>1856, Specimen collected by A. R. Wallace in Bali (Copsychus amoensis), ♂. Credits to Yuchen Ang. Retrieved from https://wallace.biodiversity.online/species/A-Vert-Aves-000081
Image of an oriental magpie-robin, originally from Natural History Museum, Tring, United Kingdom.
1856, Specimen collected by A. R. Wallace in Bali (Copsychus amoensis), ♂. Credits to Yuchen Ang. Retrieved from https://wallace.biodiversity.online/species/A-Vert-Aves-000081
Magpie approaching nest.
</br>1956, photograph also from Guy Madoc, from An introduction to Malayan birds.
Magpie approaching nest.
1956, photograph also from Guy Madoc, from An introduction to Malayan birds.

Besides the local’s immersion in nature, birdwatching trips became an important way to pay more attention to the natural world. As our interviewee, Tan Gim Cheong from NSS Bird Group, shares, present-day bird enthusiasts follow a well-trodden path in learning the ways of the birds around us. As the hobby of going on nature walks spreads to more ordinary people, curiosity and interest in making kin with the non-human leads them to eventually study naturalists’ books and know the times of the year when a bird is nesting, that dawn is the best time to go bird-watching, and eventually all their names, just like how youngsters get acquainted with the game “Pokemon”.

Jarvis, from Birds of Singapore 
</br>2018, Birds of Singapore, Retrieved from https://www.amazon.sg/Birds-Singapore-Christopher-Hails/dp/9814794473
Jarvis, from Birds of Singapore
2018, Birds of Singapore, Retrieved from https://www.amazon.sg/Birds-Singapore-Christopher-Hails/dp/9814794473
A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Singapore
</br>2013, Retrieved from https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9781912081653.
A Naturalist's Guide to the Birds of Singapore
2013, Retrieved from https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9781912081653.

Tan Gim Cheong is a 49-year-old Singaporean man who heads the Bird Group of NSS. Not only did he discuss how technology and the passage of time have influenced birding practices, he also shared about the role played by museums, naturalists, and illustrators in cultivating an appreciation of birdlife. NSS is one of the oldest and most reputable environmental organisations in Singapore, having split off in 1991 from its predecessors - the Malayan Nature Society (1940) and Singapore Natural History Society (1921). While digital photography tends to be taken for granted today, illustrations and drawings were an important way of getting to know the birds of Malaya, and remain important in emphasising characteristic features.

1970s was a time of rapid urbanisation. The Animals and Birds Act was passed in 1965 to regulate the bird trade. Bird trade was more strictly regulated with vaccinations and checks on diseases, as well as rigorous import-export limits. Many imported or traded pet birds that were not native to Singapore, such as parrots and macaws. This meant increased complexity in how biodiversity was managed. Imported birds that escape could potentially become invasive, harming native birds and disrupting local ecosystems.

The magpie robin declined from being common in earlier days, to requiring a re-introduction programme by NParks in the early 1980s. Gim Cheong comments that this was initially assessed to be a failure, as the re-introduced birds may have been poached, however the magpie robin is now a regular at some sites.³ Today, it remains a threatened species, and in many places has been replaced by the Javan mynah.⁴⁵

Photo

Male Magpie Robin on park ground.
11 August 2019, National Parks. https://www.facebook.com/nparksbuzz/photos/the-native-oriental-magpie-robin-is-a-nationally-threatened-species-and-was-form/2504266332946161/

Today, kampongs are replaced by high-rise buildings that we associate with the Housing Development Board (HDB), while birdsong appreciation has shifted from wild birds to caged imported birds. Citizen science programmes aim to build understanding and love for biodiversity among Singaporeans, as does the calendar provided by LepakInSg provide a means of joining different environmental activities.⁶ The annual Bird Race by NSS Bird Group continues to gather competing teams to count as many birds as possible at dawn. Many of these birds remain common in natural heritage areas, like Pulau Ubin and Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve.⁷

Will the cry of the magpie robin still be known and loved by children today who grow up in the urban landscape and not wilderness? Will our streets become silent?

References

  1. Madoc, G. C. (1956). An introduction to Malayan birds (Rev. Ed.). Kuala Lumpur: Malayan Nature Society.

  2. https://singaporebirds.com/species/oriental-magpie-robin/ Copsychus saularis, Murai-Kampung Biasa, 鹊鸲 https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/the-bird-that-keeps-our-spirits-up/article30748988.ece doyel/doel https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-robin-and-the-village-how-pothakudi-in-sivaganga-district-went-without-street-lamps-for-the-sake-of-a-bird/article32220925.ece kuruvi

  3. http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/pub/naturewatch/text/a071b.htm Nature society newsletter, Nature watch. Vol 7 No 1 Jan-Apr 99

  4. https://singaporebirdgroup.wordpress.com/2015/06/05/the-javan-myna-mixed-fortunes-of-a-familiar-stranger/

  5. https://www.facebook.com/nparksbuzz/photos/the-native-oriental-magpie-robin-is-a-nationally-threatened-species-and-was-form/2504266332946161/ this phrasing is from NParksBuzz. https://www.nparks.gov.sg/florafaunaweb/fauna/7/4/748 “Nationally threatened” is not a technical term - it is an “uncommon resident”, though he notes the paucity in numbers as well.

  6. https://www.inaturalist.org/projects/nss-every-singaporean-a-naturalist-overall https://www.nparks.gov.sg/biodiversity/community-in-nature-initiative/citizen-science-programmes

  7. http://habitatnews.nus.edu.sg/pub/naturewatch/text/a071b.htm Nature society newsletter, Nature watch. Vol 7 No 1 Jan-Apr 99

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Wong Xinyuan, Loh Yi Fong/Nanyang Technological University

Wong Xinyuan is an undergraduate of Nanyang Technological University majoring in history. She is interested in transforming the relationship between nature and humans. She is keen to understand how the effects of climate change and socioeconomic disparity intersect to form developmental challenges for Southeast Asian societies.

Loh Yi Fong is an undergraduate of Nanyang Technological University minoring in history and science, technology & society. He is an incoming graduate student in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in Fall 2022. He was inspired by his dad’s love of birds whilst growing up in Changi.

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