Friday, June 27, 2008

To What Extent Are there Sub-species?

I have never had the interest to try to determine the various possible sub-species of the white-rumped shamas (copsychus malabaricus) in the various regions of Asia. I suspect, that many of the supposed sub-species may not be true sub-species if DNA tests are carried out. As you know a sub-species is generally created because of its geographical isolation. The terrain, climate and availability of food have an effect on the bird's structure, display, agressiveness, song etc so that over a period, slight differences in structure and other features appear in the birds in a particular locality as compared to those in another locality.

However, if the birds from one locality are transferred to another locality, over a period their descendants will tend to seem much like those of the shamas in that locality. An example will more clearly show what I mean. Let's take an Irish family who suffer hard times in their home country and emigrate to the USA as did many others in the late 19th and early 20th century. Over 3 generations or more, their descendants will be exposed to better nutrition and a different cultural mix and we will be able to recognize them as Americans. However, if these same Americans are relocated back to Ireland and exposed to the same conditions their forefathers had experienced, they will likely revert over time to what their forefathers had originally looked and sounded like. In my view, they cannot be considered to be a true "sub-species".

There are of course the true sub-species. These are birds from a particular locality that are clearly distinguishable from the White-rumped Shama. Thus we have the White-crowned shama ("copsychus stricklandii") from Borneo. It is much like its relatives in the south to central parts of Peninsula Malaysia except that there is a white cap on the top of its head. I kept a pair for awhile but did not breed them as I found the song of indifferent quality. There is also the black shama ("copsychus cebuensis"), or siloy from the island of Cebu in the Phillipines. This species is on the CITES endangered list and I have never seen one except in photographs. Then there is the Black-tailed shama from Indonesia. As the name implies, all the 12 tails are black instead of 4 black and 8 white tails. There appear to be 2 sub-species of the Black-tailed Shama. One species has tails of about 4 inches. The males of this species have a very variable song but I felt that the bits could be better strung together to make a more musical whole.

I have seen 3 males at different times of what I think is another sub-species of Black-tailed Shama. These birds had long tails of about 11" and I toyed with the idea of breeding them until their progeny bred true. I did not do so as none of the 3 birds impressed me with their song and I concluded that the type of song was endemic to this race. There are other true sub-species such as the Rufous-tailed Shama ("Copsychus pyrropygus"), where the shama is differentiated from the White-rumped shama by something more than just size, or quality of feathering. These are true sub-species.

I may be wrong but I do not consider a bird to be a distinct sub-species merely because it is say, of a different size from the birds in some other locality. We know that the shamas from a particular locality can be expected to be of a certain type. Thus the shamas from Medan generally have short tails, are thicker feathered and have better songs than those from other regions. If long tailed Indonesian shamas are wanted, these can more likely be found in the province of Acheh than Medan. Again, the shamas from southern Malaysia are more like the shamas from Medan except that the voice is not as good and they tend to be smaller.

We know that the most beautiful long tailed shamas are more likely to be found in Langkawi and its nearby islands along the border of Malaysia and Thailand but the song is not comparable to the Medan shamas and neither is the display as good or the birds as aggressive as the shamas from Grik and Baling in Malaysia. However, even in a particular locality, there are variations in the shamas. Many years ago, shamas from Vietnam were imported in small numbers into Singapore. They were not popular. The birds were small bodied with relatively long narrow tails. More recently, with the opening up of Vietnam to foreigners, Singaporeans have visited shama competitions in Vietnam and been able to buy birds that do well. The birds that have been brought back look very much like the best Malaysian birds. This again shows that the shamas can vary even in a particular locality. Thus, even with the shamas in Medan, there will be found those that look much like the shamas in Malaysia.

The above explains why I have not bothered to study the various sub-species. My aim in breeding shamas is to try, in my small way, to do for the shama what has been done for the canary i.e. to breed White-rumpe Shamas to a type that I consider superior to those available in the wild. With this in mind, I disregard the supposed sub-specie variations amongst the White-rumped Shama and choose as breeding stock the type of shama from any locality that most satisfies the factors that make up the ideal that I have in mind. These include factors relating to structure, feather quality, length of tail, variability and musicality of song, aggressiveness and display. I would like to say something about aggressiveness.

I have seen some comments from Europe that seem to suggest that it may not be a good thing to promote aggressiveness in a shama against other shamas. I think this is wrong. Bear in mind that the shama belongs to that group of birds and animals that has to conquer and defend territory in the wild if it is to successfully mate and pass on its genes. The stronger and more aggressive the shama, the better the territory it will be able to conquer and defend. A shama that is timid will be unable to get a a suitable territory and mate and pass on its genes. I therefore think that we need to retain and improve this trait in our captive breeding program.

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