Of yellow starlings and pink munias

One of the pleasure of bird photography is the joy of seeing colourful birds. You seldom see black and white photos of birds as much as in other genre of photography. Why restrict your palette, when nature has provided the multitude of irresistible colours adorning birds? It goes without saying that some of the most sought after birds in photography are the colourful ones. Kingfishers, trogons and pittas normally sit on top of the to see/photograph birds for the nature photographer in this region.

However not all birds are equally endowed. Birders call the drabber ones “little brown jobs” or LBJ in short.

One day in October 2013, I was looking out for migratory raptors at Punggol Barat when a small flock of drab starlings (not a murmuration which would be an awesome sight by itself) flew pass. I instinctively knew something was not quite normal and I immediately aimed my camera at the direction of the flock and fired away a few frames of photo. I had no time to know what exactly caught my eye at that moment, but such is the instinct of a birdwatcher sometimes.

On review, what I had photographed were a few Daurian Starlings (Agropsar sturninus) and one other yellow bird. It too looked like a Daurian Starling but the colouration was most odd.

Daurian Starling
(The yellow starling is at the right of the frame)

Daurian Starling
(The yellow colouration of the bird extend throughout the body. If you look closely, there is another bird at the front that has a tinge of rosy colouration but is restricted only to the head)

On consultation with several more experienced birders, we confirmed it was indeed a Daurian Starling and most probably dyed yellow and released for religious purposes. Other species of starlings with odd colouration were also reported in Hong Kong. I accepted the explanation and kept the photos in my archive and hoped to post it another day.

Just recently, an article in BirdingAsia (Vol 22, Dec 2014) tied everything together. A study by Stanton & Leven concluded that the odd colouration of the starlings in East Asia had a historical origin. Museum samples of oddly coloured starlings were collected all the way back to 1929 in Vietnam. Various hypothesis for the odd colouration were discussed and discarded, including diet and genetics. In the end, after collecting data from various countries and first hand account from Vietnam suggests that starlings were dipped in dye and sold as pets and this practice has been going on for a long time. Evidence were gathered on similar practice in China as well. So there were no religious significance to these dyed birds. Not unlike birders, pet owners are attracted to brightly coloured birds too. What nature did not provide, enterprising but less than scrupulous bird trappers did.

Which brings me back to munias. In July 2012, I had a chance to visit Jakarta on a business trip with a day free for birding. It was evident that there were very few wild birds in the city. In the outskirts things were a bit better. I remember that at almost the end of my birding excursion, I was delighted to spot a brightly coloured bird resting on a branch. Bright pink. Not knowing all that well the native bird species in the area, I quickly rattled a few shots in excitement. Once I calmed down, looking closer at the bird, it seemed rather familiar. Apparently the object of my wonderment was a bright pink munia. A Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata) to be exact. As you no doubt already know, it too was probably dipped in dye and sold as a pet but somehow managed to escape. So old regional customs die hard, pardon the pun!

Scaly-breasted Munia
(The pink Scaly-breasted Munia)

Scaly-breasted Munia
(The pink bird with a non-dyed normal Scaly-breasted Munia)

Stanton & Leven (2014) Abnormal colours of east Asian starlings: a mystery solved? BirdingAsia 22, 101-104

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