Singapore's stationary ark
After passing through a shopping arcade, get ready to watch 8,000 birds at Jurong. RANJIT LAL on a `must do'.
A red and yellow macaw.
IF you're even faintly interested in birds and are visiting Singapore, then a trip to the famous Jurong Bird Park is a "must do". Agreed, you won't get much authentic birding here, since the birds are not free to fly away, but you do get a wonderful glimpse into the astonishing diversity of bird life and this could well spark off a lifetime's curiosity. The park's brochure claims it has around 8,000 birds belonging to 600 species, which is and can be quite overwhelming. The park also presents a curious mix of the sublime and ridiculous, and sometimes, quite bizarre, so you really do need a receptive mind.
After passing through the regulation souvenir shopping arcade (de rigueur anywhere in Singapore) you are for example, confronted by a pair of morose looking bald eagles behind glass. Now this, could or could not, be interpreted as hugely symbolic wishful thinking. That disturbing image is happily dispelled by an exhibit of parrots tall kaleidoscopic macaws and inquisitive cockatoos, some of which, if you pay their modelling fees, will pose on your shoulder or head for a photograph. Apparently most of the parrots here are happy couples and have set up homes in the hollows of the dead trees in their enclosure.
The 30-metre man-made waterfall.
You leave the humid heat, and enter a dim blue air-conditioned world of ice and snow. Against a painted Antarctic backdrop of glaciers, icebergs and floes, groups of stately Emperor penguins pose like actors at curtain call. Jackass penguins frolic in the glass fronted swimming pool in front of them (so you can see how they "fly" underwater), while puffins (which are Arctic birds, so we have some true North-South cooperation here!) and snow-white terns pose on rocks or ersatz rocks.
From the dim blue polar gloom you proceed to the crepuscular world of stone curlews and owls. Stone curlews now called thick-knees glare at you in basilisk manner, spurt stiffly a few yards and then glare at you again, surprised that you're still there. A stately collection of owls gazes down at you from their branches and stumps, against a planetarium sky full of stars. The snowy owl with its icing sugar plumage and blazing golden eyes, is magnificent; the eagle owl pretends to be a part of the stump he is squatting on, while the barn owls, with their placid Oriental eyes, look down at you as if hoping you have brought them a present of white mice.
Most of the park's regular exhibits are housed in large but conventional cages or aviaries, which are well organised and designed. You can get your fill of toucans, hornbills, crowned pigeons, green pigeons (which are beautifully coloured), birds of paradise, parrots et al, but really it is not so different from any modern conventional zoo. And sometimes a bit peculiar too. The hummingbirds (Jungle Jewels) are housed behind glass, rather like live museum exhibits; under artificial lighting, which makes them seem like they're living in a lighted room in an age of perpetual night. You get a happier feeling however, when you enter the Walk Through Aviaries. The South East Asian Bird Aviary has a psychedelic collection of birds from the tropical rainforests of these areas, and if you haven't done any birding in such forests, you can find yourself embarrassingly tongue tied by your inability to identify any of the multicoloured birds. It was hopeless as far as I was concerned and made worse because it was too dim for photography I couldn't even take a picture and identify the bird later!
The second Walk Through Aviary, called the Waterfall Aviary, is spread over two hectares and boasts a 30 plus metre man made waterfall, of which the park is exceedingly proud. It is the tallest man-made waterfall in the world after all and I guess only Mother Nature must be winking. Here, the lush rainforest has been stocked with a bewildering range of birds: gangs of chattering rainbow lorikeets, wall eyed splendid starlings in russet and iridescent purples and blues, red-eyed Philippine starlings finished in jet black, strange long-tailed broadbills with their painted rubber puppet faces and devastating squadrons of scarlet tanagers zooming low over your head like fighter jets, to check out the large luscious slices of papaya laid out for breakfast at the feeding stations. Clustered at the edges of the muddy pond banks or setting off for short swims, are costume party white-faced ruddy ducks, their plumage a beautiful polished mahogany in a sudden flare of bright sunlight, kept company by pintails and blue-winged teal. The Javan pond herons and black crowned night herons keep a silent vigil from low overhangs, still as death until they spot their quarry. You can walk around this aviary several times and not get bored it is the closest thing on offer to a natural birding experience.
The lakes nearby are well stocked with water birds, though I couldn't really figure out if some, all or any of them were pinioned. They were populated by large flocks of flamingos (of various types, and most quite querulous), storks, herons and egrets. There are pelicans too of various makes the white, the Australian, the Dalmatian and the brown, as well as cormorants with their fluted bronze plumage. In separate marsh habitats there are cranes too, the crowned crane from Africa, the Manchurian crane from the Orient and our own Sarus. Near the entrance of the park clusters another glamorous display of Caribbean flamingos, they are a lovely deep peach pink and give a neat demonstration of a disciplined march past, which alas, falls out into a disgraceful free-for-all, as the hour strikes when the public is allowed to throw them bread while the keeper flings fistfuls of presumably carotene enriched health food.
The lakes are well stocked with water birds like these Caribbean flamingoes.
To entertain those not satisfied by this dazzling display of birdlife, there are various "shows" organised as per a daily schedule. The Fuji World of Hawks show starred Angel and Hawkeye, two Harris hawks, a gorgeous Malayan fish owl, a lagger falcon, red-tailed hawks, brahminy kites, a sea eagle, an Egyptian vulture, black Andean vultures and even adjutant storks. (The cost may vary.) The birds were made to demonstrate their hunting and flying skills, and gave the audience their thrills by "head hopping" over them. There were demonstrations of catching prey in mid-air, and the Egyptian vulture, apparently quite an old fogey and probably quite myopic, showed not very accurately how to break an ostrich egg (fake of course) by dropping rocks on it. Finally he was rewarded with a genuine chicken's egg, which he broke successfully by dropping on a rock (after trying grass and failing), but then, poor chap had to fend off a vigorous black vulture that muscled in after having finished cleaning up his own artificial dead buffalo.
The "All Star Bird Show" was frankly, banal and farcical. What ego kick we get by making animals and birds behave like us, God only knows. A poor baffled sulpher crested cockatoo was made to sing "Happy Birthday" (in a hopeless falsetto and completely off key) while the two macaws, Hardy and Mickey, I think, were made to compete in a cycle race.
Hardy and Mickey ... Who will be the winner?
There is, of course, the more serious business of captive breeding. Some of the water birds like the egrets and herons breed naturally in the park, and a small breeding colony of flamingos has also been established. Courtship begins in October, and with flamingos, this should be worth seeing. The park has also bred the rare Rothschild's myna, a beautiful satin white myna with a sky blue eye stripe, and an endemic inhabitant of Bali, under siege by the pet trade. Which is why I can't understand the logic of having "shows" with the talking and performing birds, which seem to imply that keeping birds in cages and teaching them to talk and do tricks is perfectly acceptable, so encouraging the pet trade.
For educational purposes, the park serves a valuable function in showing people birds they would never otherwise see, or even believe could exist. But you will only have truly learned something worthwhile about birds and life, if something leaden remains in your heart whenever you see an eagle behind bars. Or glass for that matter.
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