John McBeth – Straits Times
Since I began spending a fair amount of my time in Bali, I have been paying a lot more attention to the bird-life and other fauna in the fields near our house, which lies just down the coast from the seaside temple of Tanah Lot.
I’m not a bird-watcher, mind, just an observer. Or at least that’s what I tell myself because I have often laughed at the binocular brigade — including a former Singaporean deputy defense minister — who devote hours to scouting out rare feathered species.
Still, with more time on my hands, I do admit to a certain excitement these days when I see something a little out of the ordinary. That happened with my first sighting of a Padda oryzivora, better known as the Java Sparrow.
Quickly consulting Morten Strange’s “A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Indonesia,” which just happened to be lying about, it didn’t take me long to identify the full-bodied finch by its short orange-red beak, pink belly, grey-black plumage and distinctive white splash on its cheeks.
As I have since learnt, the Java Sparrow has been kept as a cage-bird in Asia for centuries, initially in Ming Dynasty China and later in Japan; it is often depicted in ancient Japanese prints.
It also became very popular in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, but there has since been a ban on importing it. In California, it is even illegal to cage one despite the bird’s perceived threat to agriculture.
Not so in rice-dependent Asia, where it is found in mangroves, woodlands and in cultivated areas around villages. But what got me going were references to it being rarely seen in the wild, with BirdLife International describing it as “vulnerable to global extinction”. Wow!
I quickly whipped off an e-mail to Britain’s Java Sparrow Society (oh yes, the nature-loving Brits have a society for all sorts of birds), telling it of my discovery and basically asking whether this was the equivalent of a bird-watcher’s nirvana.
A couple of days later (it was a weekend after all), membership secretary Andrew Dutton kindly sent a response, confirming that the Java Sparrow was becoming increasingly uncommon in the wild.
He said the bird was hunted as a pest by rice farmers, who do not take kindly to it preying on their crops; it is even trapped and eaten in some parts of Indonesia, though I can’t even imagine what it would taste like.
A son of the land myself, I can understand the farmers’ angst. In the rice fields around Canggu, already full of scarecrows and wind-powered clappers, villagers spend hours shouting and cracking whips to keep the birds away from the ripening grain.
My first glimpse of the Java Sparrow was a single bird sitting on the edge of the infinity pool, bathing and drinking like the Tree Sparrows, Streaked Weavers and Spotted Doves, who are regulars in our idyllic domain.
A couple of hours later, I was having a swim when what I thought was the same bird landed back on the edge of the pool, almost within arm’s length. We looked at each other and, amazingly, the finch never even flinched.
Soon after, I noticed there were two Java Sparrows hanging out in the frangipani in our garden, the tree’s stick-like structure a magnet for roosting birds.
This was getting better and better.
The next day, I heard an awful commotion and went out to discover at least eight, yes eight, Java Sparrows, all trying to sit together on the same branch. I thought I was seeing things. But as it turned out, that was nothing.
As I am writing this, I count nearly 50 Java Sparrows perched on the bare branches of a tree overlooking a patch of rice field next to the house. It looks startlingly like one of those ominous scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.
My wife, a coral reef enthusiast who has trouble separating a weaver from a wading bird, is amused at my new interest. She even wants me to join the volunteer effort to revive the breeding fortunes of the critically endangered Bali Starling.
With only two known habitats in north-west Bali and on an offshore island, I might be tempted — as long as the unique, pure-white bird doesn’t have to spend any length of time in a cage.
When a departing friend persuaded me to take in his Chattering Lory, an aptly named red-headed Maluku parrot, I was never comfortable watching it sit there behind bars day after day for more than a decade.
But I also knew that if I released it in the middle of Jakarta, it would probably die or find itself back in captivity. When it did expire just recently, friends noticed its absence right away.
That’s because they had become so used to the bird screeching whenever I was on the phone. I had learnt to block it out. But not those on the other end of the line, who kept asking what was the cause of the ruckus.
No cages in Bali, home to the ubiquitous Intermediate and Cattle egrets that feature in so many of the island’s traditional paintings. Most of the other birds around Canggu are readily identifiable, but there are also surprises — like the Java Sparrow and, wait a minute… the Golden Whistler.
Now, where are my binoculars?
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times