Tag Archives: invasive species

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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World’s most destructive bird species now in Singapore

This bird pictured is the notorious Red-billed Quelea (Quelea quelea). It is a breeding female that is ready to lay eggs. It’s widely considered to be the most abundant and destructive bird species in the world, to the extent that it is referred to as the “feathered locust”. If there is a poster child of environmentally and economically destructive bird species, this would be it. It has been estimated to damage food crop to the region of USD70 million annually worldwide, and particularly in its native sub-Saharan Africa. So what is it doing here in Singapore?

A female Red-billed Quelea in breeding plumage  at Punggol Barat. Photographed on 18 April 2015 by Johnson Chua and used with permission. Another female was seen in March 2015

A female Red-billed Quelea in breeding plumage at Punggol Barat. Photographed on 18 April 2015 by Johnson Chua and identified recently as a breeding female by Dr. Dieter Oschadleus of University of Cape Town, South Africa. Used with permission. Another female was photographed in March 2015 and uncovered while this article was being prepared.

Every year birds and other invasive species are released in Singapore during religious festivities by some adherents as a gesture of compassion and to gain merit. Although it is frowned upon these days, it is still big business. This year, Operation “No Release” is being held with manpower gathered from government agencies and volunteers to minimize the number of releases of invasive species in Singapore. Yet we believe that although well meaning and a step in the right direction, it may be a case of “closing the stable door after the horse has bolted”. A destructive species like the Red-billed Quelea should never be allowed to be imported to Singapore to begin with, let alone released. Together with the proliferation of African waxbills, weavers, whydahs and whatnots, they represent what is wrong with our current wildlife management. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) which is the gatekeeper of what species gets imported in, should be the one making sure such dangerous species are kept far away and to severely restrict imports of other non-native species.

In the last four years after African grassland species (waxbills, weavers, bishops, queleas) were released en-masse in Singapore, our grassland seed-eaters species mix have changed drastically, with the native munias and weavers numbers down significantly to the extent that in Lorong Halus and Punggol Barat, they are a minority species (personal observations). If this trend continue we will end up like Hawaii, where native species were wiped out by the aliens.

Red-billed Quelea and alien bird species Orange-breasted Waxbill (left) and a pair of Red Avadavats.

Red-billed Quelea and alien bird species Orange-breasted Waxbill (left) and a pair of Red Avadavats.

It is clearly evident that there is a spike in sales of such alien species during Vesak day. We recommend that AVA ban the imports of dangerous species, and limit the quantity of other alien species during the few months prior to the Vesak Day so that we do not suffer economic and ecological disaster somewhere down the line. If Queleas are breeding, history have shown that they are unstoppable in their native land causing already poverty stricken countries to be further left behind, with drastic drop in their already low yielding crop. What happens when this species takes hold in our region? Rice is an important crop for our neighbours and they are involved in high yield agriculture. The losses that result will be magnitude of times higher and the impact will be even greater than in its native region.

We would like to highlight the Pest Animal Risk Assessment done by Queensland’s state government in Australia. A relevant quote: “If permitted to naturalise, queleas have the potential to become super-abundant over vast areas of savannah grasslands and grain-growing regions across Queensland. A range of cereal grains—including sorghum, wheat, barley, corn and sunflowers—worth an estimate $429 million per annum (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008) could be at serious risk“. Red-billed Queleas are assessed as an ‘extreme’ threat species and listed as Prohibited Wildlife under the Nature Conservation (Wildlife) Regulation 2006 in Queensland and cannot be kept as pets.

We ask AVA to seriously look into this and other invasive species proliferation in Singapore and do similar pest risk assessments and management. It is heartening to know that AVA have taken action in the past to address importation of dangerous species like the piranhas, so we think that thoughtful and rational policies will win out.

We further hope that the government agencies work together with each other and with experts to address other fundamental problems in nature conservation and wildlife management. Do we want to open yet another ecological Pandora’s box, that we are now already wasting taxpayer’s money to solve? Our current Javan Myna and House Crow problem is indicative of past mistakes that we are clearly paying the price for.

In Singapore, sometimes it is difficult to talk purely on conservation. But surely when economic well-being and national and trans-national interests are at stake, we must do that much more.

Red-billed Quelea flocking at a waterhole in its native habitat. (Photo: Alastair Rae. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Licence)

Red-billed Queleas flocking at a waterhole in its native habitat. (Photo: Alastair Rae. Image from Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 2.0 Licence)

Reference:
1. Red billed Quelea Risk-Assessment (2009): Invasive Plants and Animals Biosecurity Queensland, Australia
2. Quelea – Africa’s most hated bird: IRIN