When asked about Singapore’s birdlife, many locals bemoan the perceived lack of colour displayed by the birds they encounter in their daily life. While mynas, sunbirds and orioles may not be on the same level as the rainbow-coloured denizens of Asia’s rainforests, Singapore does have its fair share of colourful birds, some of which are also difficult to observe elsewhere in Asia. In this instalment, we profile three colourful avian residents which dwell unobtrusively in our midst, many of whom can be observed even in our urban parks and green spaces.
We start with one of the more specialised sunbirds in the region – the mangrove-dwelling Copper-throated Sunbird. In poor light, males of this species can appear almost uniformly black, but when seen well, the iridescent quality of its plumage comes into its own, with a kaleidoscope of colours that even modern cameras struggle to document. This large sunbird has a patchy distribution throughout Southeast Asia, confined primarily to large tracts of good quality mangroves in southern Thailand and the Malay Peninsula as well as the Greater Sundas and Palawan. In Singapore, the species has persisted where most of our other mangrove specialists have faded away, and is regularly seen, some would say even locally common, in our remaining mangrove forests. The readily accessible Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, one of the local strongholds of this species, is one of the few places in the World where one could expect an encounter within minutes of stepping out of a taxi.
Our next representative is a widespread resident throughout our island, but its crepuscular habits and strange vocalisations have confounded numerous observers over the years. Meet the Red-legged Crake. This forest-dwelling rail is widespread throughout Southeast Asia. However, its tendency to scurry mouse-like away from danger, coupled with being most active at dawn and dusk, means that few observers see anything more than a fleeting glimpse in the field. In Singapore, however, this species has adapted to inhabiting a wide range of wooded habitats throughout the island. Arguably the best place to see this species in the World is at our world-renowned Singapore Botanical Gardens, where individuals and even parents with young chicks frequently forage by the sides of footpaths and on open lawns in broad daylight, seemingly unperturbed by the multitude of park users and tourists. When viewed up close, it is an extremely attractive species, sporting a crimson-red iris and legs, rich chestnut brown plumage and Zebra-esque barring on its belly.
Finally, we can’t have an article on colourful birds without a representative from the parrot family! Of the three species of parakeet found in Singapore, the Long-tailed Parakeet is the only native representative, and also has the distinction of being a globally near-threatened species. Males of this species are an eyeful with their bright red bills, peach coloured cheeks, black “beard” and long flowing tails. Unlike the other introduced parakeets, this species prefers the forest edge and adjacent areas of suitable habitat. In Singapore, despite competition from the introduced Red-breasted Parakeet, it is still readily observed on the edge of our nature reserves and larger tracts of woodland, while recent studies have shown that it also roosts communally in urban areas throughout the country. This is in marked contrast to the rest of Southeast Asia, where the species is generally only uncommonly recorded, and usually flying high above forested areas or along the coast.
While the spectacular birds of Southeast Asia’s rainforests tend to grab all the headlines, Singapore’s colourful avian residents are equally sought after by well-travelled global birdwatchers. Now that you, the reader, are familiar with some of our local avian jewels, look out for them on your daily commute or during your leisure time, they could well brighten up your day as well!
Photo Gallery of the birds featured:
This article is written and edited by our guest contributor Albert Low with help from Yong Ding Li. They are both highly travelled birdwatchers from Singapore, and are among the top Asian birders, ranked by number of bird species seen in Asia. Photo Credits: ZaccHD, Francis Yap.