by John Walsh on 22/01/09 at 7:19 am
What birds may be seen in the centre of Bangkok?
In a large and very busy city like Bangkok, the pace of life can lead to concentration on what is in front of us and what is below. Rushing through the traffic, reading, writing and being careful of the pavements all occupy the attention. From time to time, it is good for the spirit and the mind to look up and see the sky and, indeed, the birds. In central Bangkok there are not huge numbers of birds but there are still enough to make the occasional look around satisfying.
Most city birds take on the colours of the urban life around them and, given pollution and rain and the car parks that are Bangkok’s roads, that means birds tend to be more drab than those in the countryside. Yet there is still colour. Common birds such as the Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) have attractive black and blue speckled neck to complement the quite smart grey feathers. The Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis) (some of which hang around on the veranda outside my bedroom) combines orange bill and feet with black, brown and white feathers. Even the most common bird, the tiny Eurasian Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus) is a nice combination of different shades of brown.
Of course, it is more convenient to find birds away from the main streets, since they tend to prefer gardens and trees of course but, also, because the traffic and other people are all in the way. I live in a house set back from the main road by smaller roads (called sois) and the few minutes I get to walk along the sois represents the best daily chance to see some wildlife (which also includes squirrels, rats and the ubiquitous soi dogs). This morning I first heard and then saw a crow, in fact the Large-Billed Crow (Corvus macrorhynchos), which continually calls out ‘kaak’ in a low voice as it flies about – it is different from other birds because it flies ‘purposefully’ – that is, in contrast to Sparrows, in particular, it decides where it wants to go and flies straight there. It is not clear, to me at least, how it decides where to go but presumably it operates according to some criteria which make sense to its avian brain.
In addition to the crow, I also saw this morning the Spotted Dove (Streptopelia chinensis) and the Oriental Magpie-Robin (Copsychus saularis) – nothing very unusual, perhaps but still a reminder that life in this city is not just work, recession and disappointing political events. Of course, Bangkok’s short winter seems already to be over – it lasted just about a week, although that was enough for much of the country to be declared a disaster zone as people, the poor especially, found it difficult to cope with temperatures lower than that to which they are accustomed. The end of the winter here, though, does not necessarily coincide with the start of warmer weather elsewhere. So, some of our winter visitors will be here for a little longer until their sense of time tells them when to migrate. The Asian Openbill (Anastomus oscitans) is one example. This is a large and striking black and white bird which rarely makes it into central Bangkok but does hang around some of the rice paddies on the outskirts of the city, especially when the fields are flooded, as the farmers will periodically do. Egrets too will join in the muddy fun, presumably because of the presence of fish in the irrigation canals. It has long been a tradition of Thai rice agriculture to add fish to irrigation channels so as to help aerate the water and, perhaps more importantly, to provide an alternative source of protein for the farmers and their families. As long ago as the end of the C13th, if the famous inscription tablet is authentic, King Ramkhamhaeng, founder of the first free Thai state, declared that there was rice in every field and fish in every canal. No doubt the birds were stalking about then as now.
A useful book to help identify birds (which I started to try to do only a couple of weeks ago) is Michael Webster and Chew Yen Fook’s A Photographic Guide to Birds of Thailand.