Tag Archives: red-billed quelea

Invasion of Alien Seed-eating Birds in our Grasslands.

By Alan OwYong and Yong Ding Li. 

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Three species of African seed-eaters photographed in the grasslands of Punggol Barat (L to R): Orange-breasted Waxbill, a pair of Red Avadavats and the destructive pest bird, the Red-billed Quelea. Photo by Johnson Chua.

The massive population of the non-native Javan Myna (c. 300,000 to 1,000,000 individuals) in Singapore today is a reminder of the problems introduced birds can pose if their numbers are left unchecked. Such a situation resulted from an introduced species adapting well to our local environment. If the myna population were actively managed a couple of decades ago, they could be less of a headache today. In urban habitats, Javan Mynas have out-competed and displaced our native Common Mynas and to a lesser extent the Eurasian Tree Sparrows, besides being a public nuisance in our housing and shopping areas.

Over the past four years, we have also been seeing another influx of alien bird species into Singapore, especially seed-eaters such as finches and weavers native to Africa. This has coincided with the ban of importing birds from neighbouring countries affected by the bird flu. Before this restriction came into place, the most common species released during religious festivals was the Scaly-breasted Munia, a native of Southeast Asia.

The new alien species that we have observed flying around our open grasslands are mainly weavers, waxbills, mannikins, munias, whydahs, bishops, and widowbirds, mostly of African origin. We estimated that more than 25 species of these seed-eating birds have been reported flying free here in Singapore the last four years. The discovery of the Red-billed Quelea, a destructive pest bird in much of Africa in some parts of Singapore has red-flagged the danger introduced birds can cause.

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The non native Long-tailed Whydah has been observed mating in Singapore.

While not all alien species are able to adapt to our local climate and habitats, we have observed that many of them have not only appeared to have settled in, but are breeding with varying degrees of success. The Golden-backed Weavers have been nesting for a couple of years in Lorong Halus and Tampines Eco Park. Likewise, we recorded the breeding of the Common and Red-rumped Waxbills in our northern parks. Others like the distinctive Long-tailed Whydahs have been photographed mating at the Punggol Barat grasslands. Potentially, these are the first signs of proliferation. Indeed, these aliens need to be monitored and if necessary, managed. More importantly, our native species may not be able to compete with the more aggressive new comers and may be in danger of suffering population declines. Our native Long-tailed Parakeets losing out to the introduced Red-breasted Parakeet is a case in point.

Furthermore, there are several issues concerning an alien replacing a native species: a) disruption to the ecological balance of our native ecosystems, b) outcompeting native species and eventually driving their extinctions, and  c) acting as a channel for various diseases and zoonotics. Once established locally, alien species can even spread and cause ecological problems in neighbouring countries.

Given the many biodiversity and urban considerations, the Bird Group has written in to AVA (Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore) to recommend restricting the importation of common seed eaters from Africa and other countries. Australia has already taken this step, and there is no reason for Singapore not to follow suit. AVA can simply administer a blanket ban, eliminating the need to list individual species, which can pose impediments to enforcement. Such seed-eating species are typically not kept as pet birds as they do not sing and have no special appeal. They are mainly sold for religious releases. The Bird Group does not recommend any substitute species as many of these (e.g. munias) may have to be wild caught. The mortality rate from the point of capture to transporting them to bird shops is very high and hence not tenable, besides depleting the wild populations of many species. The Bird Group has also offered to assist AVA by monitoring and conducting ad-hoc census of these non-native bird species in the field.

Reproduced from the Sept-Oct 2015 issue of the Nature News with permission from the Nature Society ( Singapore). 

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