Save our native munias and weavers!

Last week’s posting of the Red-billed Quelea sightings attracted a lot of media attention, with reports from our three major English newspapers (Straits Times, New Paper and Today) and online news website (Mothership.sg), as well as posts in Twitter and discussion on Mediacorp radio. We’re heartened by the feedback we’ve received so far.

The is a temptation to engage in further debate over the degree of danger posed by the queleas. Since we expect more to be released as AVA doesn’t restrict their importation, the jury is out on that one. Either there are more of them around soon or none survive in the field. We’ll find out soon enough.

What I try to present now instead is exactly what is the broader argument. That is, we are getting too many alien species in our midst and we are already paying the price for this neglect. Just sticking to the facts.

Let start with a table summarizing the number of bird species classified as seed-eaters in our Nature Society’s Singapore Bird Checklist (2013).

Species Scientific Name Family (Scientific) Status
House Sparrow Passer domesticus Passeridae Introduced
Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus Passeridae Uncertain
Streaked Weaver Ploceus manyar Ploceidae Introduced
Baya Weaver Ploceus philippinus Ploceidae Native
Red Avadavat Amandava amandava Estrildidae Introduced
White-rumped Munia Lonchura striata Estrildidae Native
Javan Munia Lonchura leucogastroides Estrildidae Introduced
Scaly-breasted Munia Lonchura punctulata Estrildidae Native
White-capped Munia Lonchura ferruginosa Estrildidae Introduced
Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla Estrildidae Native
White-headed Munia Lonchura maja Estrildidae Native
Java Sparrow Lonchura oryzivora Estrildidae Introduced

We have 5 native seed-eaters out of a list of 12 birds. Not a great record to begin with. But lets dwell into this further. Of the five native species, the White-rumped Munia is nearly extirpated. The last sighting of this munia was in October 2010 during the 27th Singapore Green Bird Race 2010 at Pulau Ubin. Both the Chestnut Munia and the White-headed Munia are uncommon species nowadays although we do get a few sightings a year. The trend is that it is increasingly difficult to see them. The most successful native species are our Baya Weavers and the Scaly-breasted Munias. However, let’s examine closely the “success” of the Scaly-breasted Munia.

Look at the picture below comparing two such birds. One taken at Pulau Semakau and the other at Sengkang. If you pay attention, the one at Sengkang have a different coloured upperparts and breast pattern compared to the Semakau bird. That’s because they are of different subspecies. Where does the Sengkang subspecies come from? The subspecies topela is native to Indochina, China and Taiwan. And if you were to look around our remaining grassland, many are of this kind and some are a cross between these two subspecies. And how did they get here? As usual they are imported legally and subsequently released by devotees. Celebrating the success or lamenting the imminent demise of our native bird species sometimes depends on how closely you look.

Scaly-breasted Munia at Semakau on the left, and Sengkang on the right. Our native subspecies is fretensis while the imported ones are topela. Biggest difference is the pattern of the scales on the breast as well as the richness of the chestnut-coloured upperparts.

Scaly-breasted Munia at Semakau on the left, and Sengkang on the right. Our native subspecies is fretensis while the imported ones are topela. Biggest difference is the pattern of the scales on the breast as well as the richness of the chestnut-coloured upperparts.

Let’s move on to the next table. You have seen the official checklist. But what is the actual situation in the field? What are the other seed-eaters in our field competing with our weavers and munias? I have kept photographic records of these birds. They are not meant to be exhaustive but rather a solo effort to document them. There is no Red-billed Quelea in the list as I have not seen them yet. Records are from 2011 to present.

Species (English) Scientific Name Family (Scientific) Origin Breeding
Vitelline Masked Weaver Ploceus vitellinus Ploceidae Africa
Golden-backed Weaver Ploceus jacksoni Ploceidae Africa Possible
Asian Golden Weaver Ploceus hypoxanthus Ploceidae Asia Possible
Red-headed Quelea Quelea erythrops Ploceidae Africa
Yellow-crowned Bishop Euplectes afer Ploceidae Africa Possible
Zanzibar Red Bishop Euplectes nigroventris Ploceidae Africa
Southern Red Bishop Euplectes orix Ploceidae Africa Possible
Cut-throat Finch Amadina fasciata Estrildidae Africa
Blue-capped Cordon-bleu Uraeginthus cyanocephalus Estrildidae Africa
Orange-cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda Estrildidae Africa
Crimson-rumped Waxbill Estrilda rhodopyga Estrildidae Africa Possible
Black-rumped Waxbill Estrilda troglodytes Estrildidae Africa
Common Waxbill Estrilda astrild Estrildidae Africa Possible
Orange-breasted Waxbill Amandava subflava Estrildidae Africa
Bronze Mannikin Lonchura cucullata Estrildidae Africa
Red-backed Mannikin Lonchura nigriceps Estrildidae Africa Possible
Pin-tailed Whydah Vidua macroura Viduidae Africa Possible
White-rumped Seedeater Crithagra leucopygia Fringillidae Africa
Black-throated Canary Crithagra atrogularis Fringillidae Africa
Yellow-fronted Canary Crithagra mozambica Fringillidae Africa

20 additional species in the field excluding the recently discovered Red-billed Quelea. All competing for the same limited resources. Out of which, 19 are from Africa, and 8 of these may be breeding due to recent increase in numbers. So have we gone too far? Outnumbered and with the competition getting fresh reinforcement every year, how long more can our native birds last?

No records of the quelea imported and that you cannot find said exotic bird in your urban bird survey? Well how about these then? How about saving the birds we have, instead of making Singapore a mini-Africa grassland?

Let’s work together on an alien bird survey in Singapore. Find out how many species there are in our midst and in what numbers compared to our native species. Then we can start an intelligent conversation on how to make things better before drastic actions need to be taken. Denial of the problem doesn’t make it go away, the same way that the introduced Javan Mynas and House Crows don’t go away much as some wish they would. When guns and traps have to be deployed, what more is there left to say?

Past articles on introduced seed-eaters: Link 1, Link 2

Newspaper articles on Red-billed Quelea

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3 thoughts on “Save our native munias and weavers!

  1. Richard White

    Thanks for the posting on these non-native species – a much needed discussion. Experience with house crows and Javan mynas, and with other species elsewhere in the world, suggests that the appropriate response to protect native species is that non-native species should be removed as a precaution. By waiting until it can be proved that they are a problem, it is then often too late or is very expensive to respond effectively.

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    1. fryap

      I agree with your approach, but in Singapore the government agency in charge doesn’t seem to be too concerned. All we can do now is raise awareness, and present evidence where appropriate. Hopefully that nudge things forward.

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  2. Pingback: Informal Bird Survey at Lorong Halus – 22 May 2015 | Singapore Bird Group

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