Friday, June 6, 2008


It’s Sunday morning and Lauden and I are at the “bird farm” in Lorong Halus, Singapore where we have come to buy the weekly supply of crickets, mealworms and super worms. There is time to spare and we are with our friend, Dickson Fong, who has a place at the farm where he keeps his top quality Mata Putehs (Oriental White Eyes) to prepare them for the bird shop that he will be opening in Bedok after the Chinese New Year. I am typing this on my laptop and Lauden is “interviewing” Dickson’s Putehs.

I have not brought a shama for training as I sometimes do. It is Sparrow Hawk season and there is danger that any bird whose cage is in the open may be attacked by one of these very fierce migrants who travel to Singapore from the north and arrive around 24th November. They remain here until about 24th April when they make the return trip home. These birds are so fierce that they will attack pet birds even when the owners are around. Just last week, a valuable Kuku (Spotted Dove) owned by Dickson’s neighbor at the farm was attacked. The owner managed to drive the Hawk away before it inflicted too much physical damage on his pet. Nevertheless the damage had been done to the bird’s psyche and it remains in shock. Areas where there are high trees nearby are especially vulnerable to hawk attacks as these birds use the trees as vantage points from which to launch a sudden attack.

This brings me to something interesting. Dickson tells me that only last week someone had offered to buy the Spotted Dove from his neighbor but the owner had refused the offer and within a few days it had been attacked by the hawk. There is an apparent belief amongst bird owners in South East Asia that if an offer is received to purchase a bird and it is refused, some harm or other may befall the bird. To avoid the bad luck, some Chinese tie a red (which signifies good luck) cloth, ribbon or thread on the cage. I am told that the Malays have a similar belief and they pull out a tale feather after they refuse an offer to purchase their birds. Pulling out the feather signifies that the bad luck has occurred and avoids further bad luck.


Over 35 years ago, I and my friend Kirby Chen, took a prahu (small sailing boat) up the Belonko River in Southern Johore to trap shamas. My interest in the birds from this region had been aroused after John Yim sold me a beautiful male shama from this area. It had long soft curving tails of about 8”. This was very long in those days as may be seen from the fact that the average size of a shama cage was 16” to 18” (diameter) and 21” was considered very large. I got a 21” for this shama that I procured from John.

As I said, we sailed up the Belonko River in a prahu whose sails were sewn from the cloth from flour bags. The river was colored brown with the mud from the recent heavy rains. On either side of the river was dense jungle. Shortly, we passed a small village of river dwelling people. It could not have been very healthy to live in that isolated place as the legs of the children were covered with sores, probably the result of mosquito bites and scratching.

We landed the boat just after the village and the children came to look at us. Entering the jungle, we were met by the alarmed chatter of monkeys but we paid no attention to them and proceeded further into the jungle. Suddenly, a hail of small objects and what appeared to be droplets of water fell on us. My initial thought was that it was raining. I was rapidly disabused of such thinking when we smelt a great stink coming from our clothes, hair etc. You guessed it. Those damn monkeys were trying to drive us away by urinating on us and bombing us with their excreta. You can believe me when I say that we got out of there in a hurry. Higher up the river there were no monkeys and we spent the day trapping shamas. We got six. They all had short tails. That was the only trip that I made up the Belonko River.

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