At the end of summer but before the new school year, waves of expatriates leave Singapore. They’re either heading back home or off to another hardship posting. With the wave comes a flood of going-away parties. When I ask the great departing, “What will you miss most about Singapore?” the usual response is, “Well I’ll tell you what I won’t miss” and then they rattle off a long list. When my time comes, I’ll miss one aspect: the birds.
I’ve already been here longer than Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Father of Singapore. I can only imagine the variety of birds he discovered and heard when he landed in 1818. When I first landed, the only exotic birds I saw were the garish women adorned by ostentatious gems and gargantuan handbags! I didn’t exactly expect to see an Asian Crested Ibis in the urban jungle, but I did expect to find a few fine feathered friends.
Singapore has several species of everyday birds I’ve never seen nor heard of before moving here. It also has a few with which I am familiar: dove, crow, pigeon and sparrow. Common birds have unusual-sounding names, but are no more special than those found in America. For example, the Olive-backed Sunbird flits around adding a dash of color to the cityscape, just as the Cardinal does in North America. Another ordinary bird, the Javan Myna, has the thieving eyes and characteristics of the Blue Jay. After months of seeing only the regulars I began to think all rare birds had been spirited away to Jurong Bird Park like all the residents being relocated to government issued high-rise HDB flats. After watching a visit from the Pestman I was convinced.
Pink-Necked Green Pigeon
Once a week our apartment complex is fogged for mosquitoes and pests. The Pestman, as he’s called, walks around in a hazardous waste jumpsuit and heavy-duty gas mask while a white cloud emanates from the jetpack strapped to his back. The residents are advised to stay inside when he is outside. When I was little, my brothers and sisters and I used to gather outside when it was time to fumigate the neighborhood. We would ride our bicycles behind the pesticide truck, Torco. How exciting it was to peddle down the street unable to see beyond our handlebars through the chemical fog. Although we survived the toxins, insects don’t stand a chance against the Pestman. The birds depending on small bugs as their food supply don’t stand a chance either.
One day, I was sitting in my apartment and I heard the staccato tenor of a bird. His tune stood out from the ordinary songs of the day. I sat silently and waited for it to sing again. Bap-bap-bap-bap. With that, I headed outdoors. The crooning ceased, but I stood in place. It sang again as its shadow flew over head it rattled my memory – I’d heard it before since moving to South East Asia, but where?
I set out walking my daily running route. With my head tilted back looking up like a New York City tourist, I walked twisting and turning under every tree on Ardmore. Past three noisy construction sights (the Malaysian and Tamil construction workers never catcall, by the way) I was beginning to lose hope. Crossing Orange Grove I heard bap-bap-bap-bap. Making as little movement as possible, I studied the branches of a tree on the grounds of the Shangri-La Hotel. There it stood high on a limb. A Hornbill! I was stunned by the unexpected sight. Smack dab in the middle of the city perched a jungle bird.
James and I first saw the Hornbill in Malaysia. It was a Giant Hornbill. The Giant Hornbills were so large we could hear the whoosh of their wings as they flew over us; their shadow nearly blocking out the sun. Transfixed by their size and their colorful bills, we watched the birds fly and land and call and eat from trees for hours. At half the size, “my” little bird was just as mesmerizing as the great one.
My neck grew sore and the Hornbill grew silent. It never sang again and finally flew away. Not only did I see the bird again, but I’ve spied with my little eye all sorts of other birds, such as a woodpecker, a Stork-billed Kingfisher, and even a rooster announcing the day from a fence on Nassim Road. Every day, I look up at the trees. Even if I do not spot the Hornbill, I’m always sure to hear his song. When I do I say, “Good morning, Mr. Hornbill.” Not because I think it a bad omen like spotting a single magpie in England, but because I want to show my respect and welcome him to the neighborhood.
Stork-billed Kingfisher pictured above