Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Update on dry food for shamas

Shamas that live in the wild always seem to be in good health and physical condition.  During the molting season when the birds are having a change of feathers and not looking at their best, they are elusive and not easily seen.  Those that respond to the calls of a decoy (picard) have shiny feathers and I have not seen a wild-caught shama with scissors-tails.  This is not so with birds kept in captivity where a great number do not appear to be in top condition when compared to their brethren in the wild.

I am sure that the main cause of captive shamas not being at their best is that the food they get in captivity does not contain all the nutrients that they need and which they are able to get in the wild.  For instance, if our shamas are fed “live” food, these are usually limited to one or more of frogs, fish, crickets, mealworms, grasshoppers or pineapple beetles.  The limited live food just does not provide them with the large variety of insects and other live food that the birds in the wild consume.

For our captive birds to do well, the best that we can do for them is to feed them a dry food that has been found to be suitable and supplement it with some live food.  What is the “best dry food” for our shamas.

There is the food made by John Yim which is an old staple that has proved itself over more than 50 years.  When I first started in shamas, I was amazed at the top condition of his birds.  He fed them his dry food with very little supplementation of live food.  I used to keep him company while he made the food and learnt much from him.  John’s food is nowadays available from only one source that I know of, the bird-shop in Clementi.  Possibly for this reason, it is not widely used in Singapore.

For many years I used the brand “Chee Seng” and my birds did reasonably well on the food.  This is no longer available.

Some of the owners of shamas tried feeding them the commercially available pellets that are formulated for chickens.  The locally available chicken pellets did not prove viable in the long run and the shamas seemed to suffer from feather plucking, lack of form etc.  

A food that seems to have chicken pellets as its main ingredient is “Emas 10”.  I understand it is widely used in Malaysia.  Recently, I have heard reasonably good reports of the use of very dark chicken pellets that is available in northern Malaysia.  I have not tried it on my shamas.

Several years ago, a brand by the name of P28 was introduced to the local market.  The preliminary reports that I came across were favourable and my friends and I tried it over a period of 3 months or so.  Our birds did well and I gave a glowing review of the food on my blog.  Unfortunately, our birds began to do less well after this time and we all stopped using the food.

I think about a year ago, a brand by the name of Molossian was introduced to the Singapore market. The main ingredient was stated to be giant earthworm with protein of 55% and fat 12%.  I bought a tub and tried it on one of my birds. I did not buy another tub. For a time, the bird-shops carried it on their shelves but it does not seem to be available anymore.

Dried insects based food.  I have tried several brands but they were all found to be lacking.  The main problem with such foods is that good quality dried insects is prohibitively expensive and the insects used in such foods may not be top grade.

What then is the best shama food that is available from the shops.  For me, it must be Three Coins.  This food comes in 2 grades with the higher priced food in tubs.  Get the food in packets.  It is lower priced than that sold in tubs but the reason for getting it is that the birds prefer it and do better on it.

Recently, I started using a food that Jeffrey Low recommended that I try.  Preliminary results are good but I hesitate to recommend it without first carrying out extensive trials.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why birds sing.

[The post below is largely taken from my response to an email from NGTC sometime ago.]

It has long been accepted that birds sing to conquer territory, to defend territory or to woo a mate but is there some other reason why birds sing?

In his book, “Why Birds Sing - a journey into the mystery of bird song”, the musician David Rothenberg suggests that birds may also sing because they are happy, much as humans do. He describes the song of certain birds and considers why they sing.  Here is Rothenberg’s description of the shama’s song:

“Soon he’s [the Taveta golden weaver] eclipsed by the white-rumped shama, a virtuoso explorateur.  One new phrase after another.  Anything we play is just a challenge for him.  An orange thrush of the tropics, this guy keeps coming back with a new variation.  Whatever we feed him, he has a louder retort.  Every song he sings seems brand new.”

Wait a minute, I thought these songs were innate,” I ask Pestel.  “Don’t’ these guys need just one simple song sung as well as possible to do the job?”

            “Calls,” whispers Pestel. “Bird calls are innate.  Those are the sounds they make with specific meanings: ‘Where are you?’ or  ‘I’m hungry’ or ‘watch out, a hawk’s circling above.’  Songs are something else again.  If they’re complicated, they have to be learned.  And the birds can only learn these songs at certain sensitive times in their lives.  Songs help them stand their ground and lure in mates, but they, like our music, don’t have such a clear message”

[DDS: I don’t think it is correct that birds can only learn complex songs at certain sensitive times in their lives.  I accept that the best time to learn new songs is when the birds are very young or during the molt.  However, my experience is that an “open-ended learner”, such as the shama, can learn new songs at almost any time.  I have come across shamas that were already in good form that were able to learn the song of another species after listening to its song for only 5 minutes.]

Here is Rothenberg’s description of the stages of the song learning process:

“One of the early meanings of the verb to record was “to learn a tune.” Ornithologist Daines Barrrington, in the late eighteenth century, used the word to explain how birds learned to sing. “The first sound is called chirp, the next is a call; the third sound is called a recording, which a young bird continues to do for ten or eleven months til able to execute every part of his song. When perfect he is said to sing his song round.”

Rothenberg finally ends the book with these words, “Why do birds sing? For the same reasons we sing – because we can.  Because we love to inhabit the pure realms of sound.  Because we must sing – it’s the way we have been designed to tap into the pure shapes of sound…..”

My own experience seems to confirm Rothenberg’s hypothesis – that sometimes the shama sings for no other reason than that it enjoys doing so. I briefly consider below the different types of the shama’s song as I have known them.

The sub-song
The sub-song is usually heard in the late afternoons and especially on rainy days. The notes are much more variable than its loud song.  While pleasant to the human ear, it seems unstructured and appears to be random warbling and not as coherent as the primary song. 

It is not often appreciated that there are different levels of loudness in the sub-song of the shama.  Usually, it is heard as a soft twitter when the shama is at rest but it can also be quite loud, though not as loud as when the bird sings its territorial song.

The adult male shama will also sing its sub-song during the molt.  This is the time when it best learns new songs after the juvenile stage.  In Indonesia, the serious hobbyist will surround his molting shama with other songbirds during the molt so that the shama can learn to imitate their songs and incorporate them into its repertoire.

It would seem that the shama uses its sub-song as a learning tool to learn new songs or to recollect tunes that it might not have used for some time. Owners of shamas have often commented that after the molt, the bird has new tunes and he has no idea where or how the tunes were picked up.

It is generally accepted that that the young shama practices its song learning by vocalizing its sub-song.  The youngest shama that I have come across singing its sub-song was 14 days of age - only 3 days after it had left the nest.  Clearly, it was learning its song in the same way that a child would learn a poem or song by reciting the words over and over again.

I have also often come across adult shamas that sing their sub-song when they are not in molt.  The bird may sit on its perch without moving much for an hour or more, singing its sub-song.  It seems to find this soothing and calming, at least this is the impression I get.  This brings to mind Rothenberg’s view that a bird may sing because it enjoys doing so.

The in-form shama may also sing what seems to be a cross between a sub-song and loud song when it is alone.  Such songs may be sung throughout the day, without seeming to tire the bird.

The aggressive song
This is a loud territorial song that the shama in good form sings when it is confronted by one or more other shamas that challenge it, such as at a shama gathering (chai tio).  I think all the noise excites it. The white patch of feathers on its rump is raised and it is alert and ready to do battle. The song is a ringing challenge to the other birds that it is defending its territory. 

We need to appreciate that the shama is territorial in nature i.e. it requires a territory to mate and to raise its young and it will try to protect this territory against intruding shamas.  For the caged shama, this would normally be the home of its owner or the aviary where it is housed. 

If a strange shama is brought into the home, the resident shama in good form will react by singing its aggressive song to herald that a stranger is intruding into its territory and to drive out the stranger. A shama that is taken to a chai tio, is outside its territory.  There is therefore no need to protect it. In fact, the shama that is not used to being brought out of the home, may feel intimidated in the strange surroundings and may not sing at all.

In the case of a bird in a cage that performs at a chai tio, I would think that it has come to regard the cage and the area around it as its territory.  If this is correct, the shama at a chai tio that responds to the challenge of the other shamas, treats the cage and its surrounding space as its territory and tries to defend it with its song.  This could explain why most shamas that sing well at home fail to perform, or to perform as well, at the chai tio.

Owners are often surprised that their shama which sings well at home, may not sing at all when brought to the chai tio.  Once we understand that the bird finds no need to sing as it is not defending its territory, we can take steps to train our birds to accept the cage as its territory and to protect it, provided they have the strength of character to do so.

A shama that is intimidated by other shamas may show signs of stress. A clear indication of stress is when the shama fluffs out its body feathers and adopts a posture that suggests that it is prepared to fight.  In fact, this is a defensive, and not an aggressive posture.  Whilst the posture seems threatening, it is a sham and a shama that does not have a strong character adopts it to try to bluff its opponent into thinking that it will defend itseld.  When I see this in a male shama, I reject it as a potential breeder.  In consequence, none of my shamas have this trait.  If they are not in form they may not react to the other shamas but they do not fluff.
The alarm song
When the shama is startled by a sound that it may regard as threatening, it sings a song that is loud and which suggests that the bird is excited.  This is an alarm song.  When this song is heard, all the other shamas within earshot will also sing this type of song.  The songs will usually last for a few minutes before dying down to allow normal life to resume.

The loud song that the shama sings when it is in good form
A shama that is in good form will sing for much of the day even though its cage may be in a secluded place in the home and there are no shamas nearby to challenge it.  It is possible that the shama is singing to announce to other shamas that this is its territory.  Another reason, which may be just as valid, is that the shama in good form feels exuberant and expresses himself in song.

The nest-box song
When the birds are paired and before the female lays her eggs, the male may spend quite some time in the nest-box.  Whilst in the box, the male will usually sing what seems to be a sub-song.  It is very soft and seems to invite the female to come to the box.  The female often does so.

I have also heard the twittering song that the male shama sings just when it is about to mate with the female.  The mating that I have seen (and I have seen it many times) usually takes place in the early morning or late evening.  The female may be on a lower branch than the male.  Without prior display, the male suddenly flutter down to the female all the time singing his twittering song somewhat similar to the song that he sings while in the nest-box.  The mating itself lasts a second and it is over and so is the song.

The aggressive love-making song
A male that has been for some time with a female and seems to be completely compatible with it may suddenly seem to attack it.  There is a furious onslaught during which the male will sing a very aggressive loud song when he is a few feet away from the female and what seems to be an aggressive twittering song when he is close to her.  He will chase her and when he is close to her he will peck aggressively at her. 

Close observation will show that he is pecking at her body that is covered by her wing feathers.  He does not peck at her head which could cause her damage or even kill her.  The whole episode may last a minute or so. At the end, the male will fly away and rest on a branch whilst he pants in exhaustion.  The female fluffs her ruffled feathers and goes about her way as though nothing has happened.  No mating takes place during the encounter.


This post sets out the songs of the shama that I have heard in the bird’s various moods.  The melodious and tuneful nature of the songs makes the shama one of the foremost songbirds anywhere in the world.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Juvenile shamas

DDS267, bred by DDS and owned by Michael Leong:

DDS287 at 42 days:

Friday, August 8, 2014

Samyong (Bare-throated Whistler) for sale

I intend to sell one of my Samyongs as I have too many birds. The price is S$2,000.00, which is the same price I paid when I acquired it more than a year ago.  During the time that I have had the bird it has improved greatly in its song, condition and tameness.

It has recently had its annual molt and the form is rising rapidly. The bird is also in tip-top condition.

Below is a video of the bird that I recorded 5 months ago.  

If you are interested, please email me at and provide me with your handphone number so that I can call you.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Here are 2 videos of Sting that I recorded yesterday.

Sting is Flame's son. As can be seen, his form has risen since the last video. He is still very young and has a long way to go to reach top form as he is still not sexually mature and does not react to a female shama when her cage is placed close to his.

I have begun to train him to get used to travel, places and people. He is starting to sing when in the car and this suggests that he is beginning to relax when in the car.  He also does not flutter too much when pedestrians pass by his cage when I take him out.

The difference between his form yesterday and the earlier videos is that he is starting to move about on the perch as part of his display. His song is also much longer. My hope is that he will develop into another "Piston".

The video below is of Alpha's youngest son.  He is bred and owned by Michael. Even at this very young age, he is showing signs of aggression.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Female captive-bred shama

One year old female captive-bred shama, DDS96, bred by DDS and owned by Jeffrey Low:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Sting's form is rising nicely.  He has a varied song and his display can be quite eye-catching.  Unlike the earlier video that I posted on this blog, the video below only shows him displaying his tails by raising them high in the air, wagging them 4 or 5 times, and then slowly bringing them down. This display is different from his earlier song and display and I found it interesting.  His form continues to improve though he still does not react to females although he is 15 months old. I think he is maturing slowly and will only realise his full potential after his next moult.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Golden Boy

Below is a video of Golden Boy, nicknamed Ah Boy, shortly after his first molt from juvenile.  He was bred by Michael from Alpha and Killer and given to our friend, William Kwa, who now owns him.

The video shows Ah Boy in his new 28" cage.  He had been in a 26" cage but it was too small for him as his tails tended to hit the sides of the cage.  He had not been displaying much in the 26" cage but there was a big difference once he was transferred to the 28" cage.  He became much more active and his display started to incorporate jumping to the sides of the cage. As his form improves, I have no doubt that his display will further improve.

As a taimong, Ah Boy had the shortest tails of any of the progeny from Alpha and Killer.  His primary tails were only 4.75".  Michael had given him to William who had stressed that he wanted to have a short-tailed bird so that he would not need to have a large cage to house the bird.

Unfortunately!! for William, Ah Boy has turned out to have quite long tails - probably about 11" after the first molt, and the tails may be 13" or more after the 2nd or 3rd molt.

I think he is developing into a wonderful shama. Hopefully, he will turn out to be another "Spider Man" for William.  Many years ago, William had a shama named Spider Man. This wonderful bird would dash to the side, or cling upside down to the top of the cage and blast out his territorial song.

Monday, July 7, 2014

White-rumped shama courtship song

The video below shows the male singing his courtship song to the female shortly after the female was introduced into his aviary. They are both in breeding condition but she is wary of his intentions. After the initial seconds of song, she flies, not away from him, but lands closer to him. She is still unsure if he will attack her and towards the end of the video, she bares her beak at him.

Half-an-hour after the video is recorded, I see him going into the box where he continues to sing to her.  She goes to the perch that is nearest to the box and I know that all is likely to be fine with this pair.