Casa Verde, an Italian restaurant at the Botanic Gardens, attracts just as many animal as human patrons. Dogs on their morning walk will look up from their tethers to hope for table scraps, mynahs stalk the edges of the tables for unattended plates, and from the edges of the adjacent forest lurk a third group – the ‘wild chickens’.
Despite my general respect for the numerous little creatures that frequent the garden from time to time, there are occassions when I am compelled to make exceptions. Continue reading
While most of Singapore has been swept up in a holiday frenzy over Chinese New Year’s impending arrival, a different sort of frenzy has been bubbling in a small corner of Singapore. Another harvest festival, Pongal, was also approaching, anticipated by the majority of the island’s Tamil community. The Pongal lights had come up over Serangoon Road, looking over Little India’s main thoroughfare, and side-streets closed in preparation for the festivities. In the lull of a Sunday mid-afternoon, though, the lights were not yet lit, giving the streets over to throngs of tourists and visitors.
Along Hastings Road, a small enclosure had been set up to house the livestock who would be vindicated on the third day of Pongal, Maatu Pongal. On that day cattle, considered sacred animals in Hinduism, would be treated to a mixture of milk and fruits, but for now they would be shown off to crowds of curious onlookers. Dairy cattle and long-haired dwarf goats were tethered behind a metal fence mulling over buckets of hay at their audience, their horns painted in different colours as a preliminary symbol of their upcoming veneration. Among the onlookers there was a fascination tinged with reverence for the cow’s life-giving properties, and I wonder how the cattle must have felt about the sweet treats and special attention they would be receiving in just days to come.
I backed out of the street and moved further along to Campbell Lane. What interested me at that point were not the decorations put up for the festivities, however, but the signs of the bustle of daily life I spotted around me. Signboards for goldsmiths leapt out at me from among the rows of shops I walked past, emblazoned in flowing Tamil script or even in gilded Chinese characters from the different chains that had set up shop in this area. A shopping arcade peeked out from a zebra crossing, revealing a pair of men behind a glass counter filled with sandy-white halwa and golden-orange jaangiri. A vegetable stall sat just blocks away from a SIM card shop, giving way to fridges filled with soft drinks and racks of magazines printed in Tamil and Hindi.
And then I noticed the streets were teeming with foreign construction workers. Many construction workers hail from southern India or Bangladesh, eking out a living doing back-breaking manual work under spartan living conditions in return for meager pay. Many of them go un-noticed, sometimes even vilified, by locals. Today was the only day in the week they had off work, and they looked significantly more relaxed in their plaid button-downs and T-shirts. A pair of men walked out of Tekka Centre, each toting a plastic takeaway cup of kalamansi juice and bantering with a relieved vigour. Lines of them snaked out from the back of the hawker centre, waiting for their turn to send money home to their families from the ATM. Men sprawled over the grass, sat together on ledges and talked quietly over cigarettes. I even saw them roaming around a playground. One man had a go at playing with the fitness equipment while his companions looked on, a shy smile crossing his face.
I began to feel distinctly out of place and yet, I was touched. It can be hard to identify with the people we perceive as below us as multi-faceted people, to think of them as having interests and aspirations of them. I felt like I had seen a more human side to these construction workers that day, one that cut through and defied the warnings I had heard from misguided stereotypes of their propensity for violence. I walked away that afternoon feeling like there was a group of people that appeared almost inaccessible to me, and whom I longed to be able to understand.
Occassionally, an eerie ululating call will sound out across the neighbourhood. It always seems to come during a lull in the day, when everything feels peaceful and the air shimmers hot and lazy over the streets. And every single time, it will send a chill down my spine. This is not only because of the moments at which it arrives or the haunting resonance of the sound. In spite of myself, I can’t help but think about what it could represent – not only is it resonant but also taunting, as if tempting the occurrence of an unfortunate event or even Fate herself.
In the bare canopy of an old yellow flame tree across the road, I saw the koel. An Indonesian domestic helper who used to work for my mother described the bird as like a ‘black chicken with glowing red eyes’. It was larger than many other birds I’d seen around the estate, distinctly visible as a dark hulk amid the thin branches. It was a male; the females had lighter speckled plumage. As a child I had once seen one up close in person, and I had been petrified by those bright blood-red eyes. Again that chilling, booming announcement – kooo-OW, kooo-OW; the koel introduced himself to all who could hear. Abruptly, he fell silent, leaped to another nearby branch, started again.
Again I wrestled with the old feelings that always surfaced whenever I heard one of the male koel’s calls. The bird itself is not bad luck, I told myself, in spite of what my Indonesian helper had told my mother based on Javanese belief. My mother wholeheartedly believed it, because when the koel called a neighbour had lost her family during vacation and moved out from the house in grief. When the koel called, there had been an argument the other time. When the koel called, my mother would ready a water pistol and shoot in its general direction as vigorously as she could. My discovery that the koel was a brood parasite turned me off the bird, too. And always it would disappear and reappear, wraith-like, solidifying the connection between its presence and bad luck in our minds.
Biology attributes the koel’s call to a far less malevolent reason. The bird is simply lonely, and is calling to attract a mate. In Indian folklore, the koel is conversely a lucky bird. Its call is said to summon rain, and they are even revered according to Hindu legal texts. Some find its singing melodious, and keep the birds in cages and feed them boiled rice. I find it intriguing how the same bird could inspire such vastly different reactions in different areas of its range. Perhaps its sonorous cries and mysterious movements easily give rise to polarising emotions: awe, or fear.
Some days, I feel pity for the bird that has been misunderstood. Perhaps, I wonder, it isn’t unlucky in itself, but simply warning us of the potential pitfalls and dangers that could pursue us in our lives. And now whenever I hear the male koel pining for a mate, I keep this in mind. A bird that calls to mind a useful pointer on life is a good bird indeed. And as for that bird I saw in the yellow flame tree, I wish him success in his quest for a willing partner.
After my initial encounter with the sunbirds, I had the good fortune of viewing many more species of birds on a walk I made around my neighbourhood. First there were the elusive silhouettes of swifts winging high overhead, vanishing as quickly as they had appeared. It took some walking before I suddenly spotted this spotted dove making its way about its daily business. With its drab brown feathers, it would have melted seamlessly into the pavement had I not noticed its sudden burst of frantic, bobbing movement. Though the signature owl-like hoots of its fellows could be heard in the distance, this dove seemed to be travelling alone. So often have I seen these birds foraging in pairs, serene and secure in each other’s company, that seeing one on its own seemed a little unnerving. Nevertheless, the sight of these peaceful animals never fails to bring me a certain measure of calmness.
Doves were another animal I had not seen in a very long time around the neigbourhood. The periodic appearance and disappearance of certain species of birds from the area I live in sometimes makes me think that my sightings of them must have symbolic significance. There are days where I gain much comfort from thinking on the symbolism of the wild animals I happen to stumble upon. While in the West doves are often associated with peace and love, they are symbols of fidelity and longevity in Chinese symbology – so much so that the staff that is typically presented to a septuagenarian in Chinese custom is known as a ‘dove-staff’. Either way, the dove is typically known for being a gentle, nurturing animal. In the light of the New Year, I thought, perhaps it was offering me a positive symbol of hope.
Another shape suddenly zipped past me, up into the canopy of a nearby tree. I craned my camera up to look, and immediately felt a shiver of joy. It was an Oriental magpie-robin: a species that has happily been brought back from the brink of extinction on the island. This one was a male, judging from his bolder plumage. He stopped barely long enough for me to take a picture before flying off again, landing on the edge of the roof of a nearby house and surveying his surroundings with a gutsy pride. As distinctive as this species might be (not being related very closely to either robins or magpies), it is not commonly found in any lexicon of cultural symbology. Given its remarkable jump back from the brink, I’d like to think that seeing one could be a reminder of persistence, and the promise that things will get better even as they seem to get worse.
Regardless of whether the appearance of different birds has any special meaning, I feel like there are still simple messages we can derive from Nature. It could be something as paradoxically simple and prosaic as just enjoying the time we have in the present. These birds live in the moment, never worrying much about their past or future, content to take things one day at a time. Perhaps it would be worth it to slow down once in a while, and listen carefully to the birdsong around us that is hidden in plain sight.
Amid the bustle of the sights and sounds that crowd the city, I sometimes forget to pay attention to the simpler delights much closer to home. Seeing birds flock to the garden is one of those. I’m proud of the variety of wildlife that’s attracted by the profusion of tropical plants outside in the yard – parakeets, cockatoos, starlings, sparrows, spotted doves, zebra doves, and even a pair of Oriental magpie-robins (the last is especially significant given that the species had almost gone extinct in Singapore just three decades earlier). However, none of them are as commonly-seen, or give me as much joy as seeing the sunbirds on their quest for nectar. Lately they haven’t been appearing as much due to the lack of torch ginger blossoms at this time of year, so I felt my spirits soar when I spotted this female busily feeding from a young flower.
I’ve sighted two species of sunbird in my garden thus far: the olive-backed and crimson sunbirds. To my surprise, I discovered that this female was neither – judging from the broken eye ring that framed her face she was, in fact, a brown-throated sunbird. Most of them come singly, all the better to take advantage of the huge torch ginger grove that flanks the side of the house. While the torch ginger seems to be their favourite, I have also seen them try to satisfy themselves from chilli flowers, pink powder-puff and clematis blossoms. Thankfully she had found a few newly-opened ginger flowers, and flitted from plant to plant, drinking nectar with a greedy urgency.
Occassionally she would look up with nervous alarm, darting her head from side to side before she resumed feeding. There would be times of the year where the male sunbirds would advertise themselves from the top of the fence, and dart around the canopy searching for mates. For now, however, she was merely watching out for danger. I watched, transfixed, from within the house, daring not to come too near lest she fly away. At last, her belly filled, she perched on the stem of a woody vine and began to preen herself. In the shade provided by the yam leaves overhead, her translucent flight feathers took on a delicate, greenish gossamer hue.
Suddenly, a series of sharp chirps cut through the air. She took off and landed on a taller branch, responding with a sharp cry that sounded almost accusatory. By this time I was watching them from behind a window, and craned my neck to look for the source of the sound. It was a male sunbird of the same species. The late afternoon sunlight fell briefly over his blue-and-purple head feathers, catching a faint iridescent gleam. Both birds launched into a verbal joust, calling loudly and flitting from perch from perch in agitation over the right to these stomping grounds. Though their cries might sound pleasant to the human ear, the songs of these birds have a much more pragmatic purpose: to assert themselves and help them fight for their survival.
After what seemed like a long argument, the male took off huffily. Almost instantly, the female flew back to her original perch and resumed preening herself, looking a lot calmer than she had been just seconds earlier. As some clouds briefly passed over the sun and left her in shadow, I stepped out to take a better look. Startled, she flew off, and I didn’t see her again for the rest of the day.
The milieu of the daily lives of animals is no less interesting than the daily lives of humans. I like to think that with their complex array of calls, displays and signals not easily understood by the human species, the animal life is a harder one to piece together and appreciate. Yet, that afternoon I felt like I had caught a glimpse into the window of what it would really be like to be a sunbird – the freedom to fly where one pleases, mingled with a turbulent undercurrent of the need for self-preservation. Such is the beauty and complexity of Mother Nature.