HEAVEN ON EARTH: The Joys of Bird Watching
By Dr Kua Kia Soong, 17 Dec 2009
With the climate change conference going on in Copenhagen, I have decided to take a break from writing on politics and social issues and instead write about another passion of mine, which is environmental protection. I was going to call it “The birds in my life” but had second thoughts since readers might think it’s the confessions of Tiger Woods!
When I was small, the pictorial images of heaven invariably had humans surrounded by wild animals, birds and exotic flora. Having always lived close to the jungle ever since my childhood, I have come to associate the closeness of animals, birds, butterflies and beautiful flora with heaven. I would not want heaven to be any more than this and for me, the guzheng composition “Jackdaws on a wintry lake” is my idea of classic heavenly music.
Wild animals are more difficult to come by these days after the Bukit Sungai Putih forest reserve behind our house was destroyed by developers. We used to wake up to the soothing whoops of the gibbons in the misty canopies of the forest, just ten minutes from the capital Kuala Lumpur. During the Eighties, the very rare serow was spotted in the area. Cobras, pythons, water monitor lizards, shrews，civet cats still come by our backyard every once in a while. They must sense we are naturalists…
Thankfully, birds still come round to our backyard because they are freer and more mobile. There is still plenty of foliage in our neighbourhood and we have planted trees and plants to attract birds into our garden. The jungle – what is left of it – is still within flying distance for many species of birds. Thus, apart from the ubiquitous sparrows, myrnas, magpies, we have frequent visitors including sun birds， flower peckers, peaceful doves， tailor birds and bulbuls。
I have to give it to our magpie robbins for being the most voluble among our backyard Malaysian birds. The British and Australian magpies are huge but rather mute by comparison. I enjoy our “dueling whistles” whenever they choose to start their songs. It’s amazing how the little tailor bird can make such a loud call when she wants to. Then there is the sunbird that continually flits to the side mirror of our car to admire himself. And who would hurt the adorable peaceful doves with their misty blue plumes and dainty gait?
Recently, we were deeply honoured by the visit of a malkoha to our garden. It was a day we will never forget for she stayed long enough for us to photograph and admire her bewitching eyes, chestnut breast, lime green sheen and magnificent tail. Occasionally, woodpeckers would make their sudden appearances, uplifting our spirits no end with their crimson backs and their ridiculous Mohican haircut! Drongos, orioles and koels delight us with their calls. The munirs in their droves swaying on the tall grasses outside our study window make soothing calls like wind chimes. Once upon an evening stroll, we came across a buffy fish owl by the stream that runs through our housing estate. My heart nearly missed a beat!
Enhancing our Sensory Acuity
I am often baffled by people who do not notice a wild fowl flying across the highway, the cattle egret in the wasteland in the centre of town or the nightjar on the telegraph pole outside their house at dusk. It would be interesting to conduct a survey to find out how many different common birds people can identify. Why is this of interest?
As human beings, our senses are our means to savour the wonders of the universe. To the Renaissance person, ‘sensazione’ is the continual refinement of the senses as the means to enliven experience.
Sensory acuity is the sharpening of one’s responses to the world around us; it involves refining our awareness of the environment - the pleasure we get from the myriad sounds and changing hues of nature, the fragrance of flowers. The more aware we are of our surroundings, the greater our discriminating ability. Besides being able to tell the difference between the call of the golden oriole from that of the koel, can you distinguish the fragrance of the “seven li fragrance” from that of jasmine?
Many people are of course pretty discriminating about food. But how discriminating are they about the different grades of teas and wines? Connoisseurs need to have good sensory acuity.
Information is potentially available to us through all our five senses. Alas, through habit we tend to notice only a small part of what is all around us! By amplifying our sensory awareness of our surroundings, we enrich our experiences and widen the scope of information available to us.
Sensory acuity is best inculcated at a tender age when, children are still uncontaminated by rigid school curricula and modern life. I remember when we used to have “Nature Study” and “Music” as part of our primary school curriculum. My love of bird watching started at a very young age when exploring the countryside was one of my favourite past times. Enhancing our sensory awareness also improves our EQ and the intuition we need to get on in personal relationships as well as in our working lives. In the process, we enrich the pleasure we get out of life, learn better and become better people.
The Ancient Fascination with Birds
The sages of old always had a keen eye for birds. Birds have always featured in Chinese paintings and literature since time immemorial. These are a sample of bird stories and songs of ancient China:
- The quail ridicules the roc, The Book of Zhuangzi；
- The turtledove and the owl, Speaking of Gardens;
- The snipe grapples with the clam ，Strategies of the Warring States;
- The kingfisher and its nest，Ming Tales；
- The discerning seagulls ，Liezi ；
- The swallows，Book of Songs;
- The bustards’ plumes， Book of Songs；
- The golden oriole sings， Book of Songs；
- The owl，Book of Songs.
Love Birds, Love Nature
We can get so much pleasure out of backyard bird watching. Once your passion for birds has been fired, you will want to venture out to the wetlands and national parks to wonder at the magnificent native and migratory birds that can be found in our country. We can start by creating more bird-friendly spaces around us by planting trees and plants in our backyard to attract birds and butterflies. By so doing, we can each in our individual urban green spaces, actualize “heaven on earth”.