A Discourse on Birds – and Biodiversity

By William Tham, Yong-Yu Huang

May 2022 FEATURE
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BIRDS POPULATE literature and folklore as symbols of transit and freedom, embodying fleeting moments of beauty.[1] In Farid-ud-din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, for example, the avians embark on an allegorical journey – towards truth, enlightenment and God.

In the face of climatic unease and the biodiversity crisis, their characterisation as temporary beings in the book holds ever greater relevance. In conversation, Justine Vaz, general manager of the Habitat Foundation, commented that the first step to handling climate change is getting people to care.

But climate change is a systems issue, explains Dr. Ng Shin Wei of the Penang Green Council, one that involves interconnections between seemingly separate issues. In the face of such an overwhelming confluence of systems, how do we begin to pay attention and take action?

Perhaps birds can be a starting point.

Read also: Penang’s Rich Nature is Free for All to Perceive – and Preserve

A meta-analysis in Nature Communications[2] studies how birds are affected by climate change. For some, apart from changes in distribution ranges, phenotypic[3] changes are correlated with temperature fluctuations (a proxy for climate change). Of the species studied, at least two of them – Parus major (Great Tit) and Falco naumanni (Lesser Kestrel) – can also be spotted in Malaysia. These are Serai Bakau and Rajawali-Padang Cakar Pudar.[4]

Malaysia is situated within the East Asian-Austronesian Flyway, which covers countries along the Western Pacific Ocean, such as Russia to South Korea and Indonesia, along which birds migrate south as the winter sets in, and north as spring arrives.

Unfortunately, local migratory birds are not protected under law in Malaysia.[5]

While modern biology is an interdisciplinary affair, its beginnings as a descriptive science are still discernible. Much of the key work that went into the formulation of evolutionary theory began with expeditions focused on collecting and cataloguing in the Malay Archipelago – Alfred Russel Wallace’s local assistants procured over 100,000 wildlife specimens![6] It is no small wonder that Malaysia is ranked as the world’s 12th most biodiverse country.[7] This relative accessibility to nature in this part of the world has allowed birdwatchers to be involved in scientific initiatives, by sharing data with researchers.[8]

Penang has a lively birdwatching community, involving both amateurs and professionals.[9] Choy Wai Mun, who runs “The Penang Birder”, has remarked on his blog on the diversity of bird life locally, highlighting sites in the Central Hills, the Air Hitam Dalam Educational Forest, Permatang Pauh, Pulau Burung and the Teluk Air Tawar-Kuala Muda coastline, the last incidentally serving as an important hub for migratory birds fleeing the northern winters.[10] Penang’s biodiversity is particularly noteworthy, from the Penang white-bellied woodpecker to the Penang thick-billed pigeon – a fact that earned recognition from National Geographic long before the recent designation of its hills as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO.[11]

Conservation efforts should seek to further involve birdwatchers.[12] It was through his interest in birdwatching that retired lecturer Dr. Rosli Omar, of the NGO Treat Every Environment Special (TrEES), began to take a deeper interest in the natural world. What began as a relatively specialised interest in birds grew into a deeper fascination with biodiversity and wildlife, and with the deep linkages within ecosystems. What he has observed, closer to home in Selangor, is that as urban environments grow, so does the fragmentation of forests (particularly the forests of Bukit Cherakah, in his case).

This fragmentation extends to an institutional level, where state agencies such as FRIM and PERHILITAN, which ostensibly have many environmental interests in common, do not appear to cooperate significantly with each other – at least not from a grassroots perspective. For the NGOs, much work is required just for their views to be heard. Within this forest, Dr. Rosli has observed changing patterns among birds; hornbills and larger birds, which like the tapirs are responsible for spreading larger seeds, are virtually gone. The net result is that the forests will be degraded, decreasing in biodiversity. One problem, Dr. Rosli notes, is the lack of survey data. He had previously proposed butterfly and bird population surveys as proxies for existing biodiversity in various sites, but time and money are scarce, while development continues to encroach on sites such as the Bukit Lagong reserve.

Flyways are particularly fragile, since the loss of one link endangers the entire route. Climate change may negatively impact these sites or migration patterns. In Peninsular Malaysia, large numbers of bird species are found in granary rice fields, providing habitats for foraging and migratory birds.[13] Additionally, these temporary wetlands house both waterfowl and land-based birds.[14]

The sustainability of such sites does not necessarily need to be purely preservation-related. In Cambodia, active rice fields double as the habitat of the migratory Sarus Crane, conserved by engagement with local stakeholders despite strong commercial pressure and some resistance from farmers and locals.[15] But elsewhere, ventures such as solar energy generation and port construction compete for key tracts of coastal land, jeopardising other suitable habitats. For example, a land reclamation project caused declines in shorebird counts (both the north- and southward migrations) at the Saemangeum tidal flat in South Korea, which also lies within the Flyway.[16]

Biodiversity remains part of a larger issue, which means statements such as Jonathan Franzen’s call to accept climate change and just focus on “keep[ing] a whole lot of wild birds alive right now” (emphasis in the original) are too simple; instead, biodiversity is but one piece of the puzzle,[17] unable to be resolved through marketing buzzwords,[18] through using less straws or treating ecology as an economic value such as “assigning a higher relative price to songbirds” to integrate them into a capitalist system of values.[19]

Read also: Penang’s Rich Nature is Free for All to Perceive – and Preserve

Rich landscapes such as forests are not meant to be seen as desolate or peripheral, but of great social significance. The Jakun people, for instance, see themselves as being shaped by knowledge of the rich flora and fauna, and the oral traditions and specific histories that tie them to their natural landscapes.[20] Networks of NGOs and grassroots activism have been built, with relative success stories emerging from green lungs in the Klang Valley (such as Kota Damansara and Bukit Kiara).

As the Mauritian architect Gaétan Siew said at a recent discussion with Akademi Sains Malaysia,[21] nature today exists in a symbiotic state to cities, set apart from the four layers of their composition – space, people, function and time. Despite all that, perhaps birds can be the first step on our journey – not just allegorically but also in concrete ways.

The title is a play on Liew Suet Fun‘s Discourse with Birds. We would also like to thank Leslie Hurteau, keen birder and biologist, for his kind assistance in reviewing the article, as well as Dr. Rosli Omar for his observations of the workings on the ground.


[1] Farid-ud-din Attar. 1984. The Conference of the Birds. (A. Darbandi & D. Davis, Trans.). Penguin Books. 

[2] Radchuk, V., et al. 2019. Adaptive responses of animals to climate change are most likely insufficient. Nat Commun 10, 3109. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-10924-4. Changes were mostly manifested in the timing of biological events such as egg-laying or migration.

[3] A phenotype refers to broad observable characteristics, which can include behaviours and physical traits. This is different from genotype, i.e. the genetic makeup. Related is a recent longitudinal study of the black-browed albatross, which is increasingly driven to “divorce” (i.e., switch mates) by environmental variability. See Francesco, V. et al. 2021. Environmental variability directly affects the prevalence of divorce in monogamous albatrosses. Proc. R. Soc. B.2882021211220212112. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2021.2112

[4] See https://www.mybis.gov.my/one/discover.php for a full listing of species, native and non-native, which call Malaysia home or a port of call.

[5] Malaysian Nature Society, (Producer). 2021, October 10. Tapir Talks 11.0 – Festival of Wings 2021 – Waterbirds Conservation in EAAF [webinar].

[6] van Wyhe , J., & Drawhorn, G.M. 2021, July 13. 'I am Ali Wallace', the Malay assistant of Alfred Russel Wallace: An Excerpt. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/i-am-ali-wallace-the-malay-assistant-of-alfred-russel-wallace-an-excerpt-85738.

[7]Background. 2015, March. Malaysia Biodiversity Information System (MyBIS). Retrieved October 4, 2021, from https://www.mybis.gov.my/art/33.

[8] Brazilian researches have attempted to study how these competitive and observant watchers can be integrated into such initiatives. This has generated lively interest even if there are kinks that remain to be worked out. See Alexandrino, E.R.. et al. 2019. Challenges in engaging birdwatchers in bird monitoring in a forest patch: Lessons for future citizen science projects in agricultural landscapes. Citizen Science: Theory and Practice, 4(1), p.4. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/cstp.198

[9]  Teh, E. 2021, June 27. Is it a plane, is it Superman? no, it's a bird! Penang Monthly. https://penangmonthly.com/article/9237/is-it-a-plane-is-it-superman-no-its-a-bird-1. Meanwhile, the Habitat Foundation’s Backyards Birding series, started during the first MCO, provides pointers for beginners, as well as information on commonly sighted species, including raptors. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VLMH--4nGdE&list=PLV_6UETsnMGpY4o_jPlb3L4Ii08dD7pj4&index=9

[10] Choy , W.M. n.d. Birding around Penang. The Penang Birder. https://penangbirder.blogspot.com/p/birding-around.html?m=1. 

[11] McLean, K. 2017, December 14. Penang: An unexpected biodiversity destination. National Geographic. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2016/11/28/penang-an-unexpected-biodiversity-destination/. 

[12] Just as how birdwatching can be harnessed to a greater ecological consciousness, this can also happen in otherwise seemingly unconnected fields, such as literature. For an example, see Glotfelty, C. and Fromm, H, 1996, The Ecocriticism Reader, The University of Georgia Press, for a primer on the field of literary ecology.

[13] Azman, N.M. et al. 2019. Contribution of rice fields to bird diversity in Peninsular Malaysia. Sains Malaysiana48(9), 1811–1821. https://doi.org/10.17576/jsm-2019-4809-02 

[14] Ibid., specifically citing King et al. 2010 and Nur Munira et al. 2011.

[15] Malaysian Nature Society, op. cit.

[16] Lee, J., et al. 2018. Effects of the Saemangeum Reclamation Project on migratory shorebird staging in the Saemangeum and Geum Estuaries, South Korea. Bird Conservation International, 28(2), 238-250. doi:10.1017/S0959270916000605. The authors have proposed several remedial measures.

[17] Franzen, J. 2015, March 30. Climate change vs. conservation. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/04/06/carbon-capture. Franzen has come under flak for his nihilistic take on climate change. See Samuel, S. 2019, September 11. The controversy over Jonathan Franzen's climate change opinions, explained. Vox. https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/9/11/20857956/jonathan-franzen-climate-change-new-yorker. 

[18] Sustainability sells. The Batu Kawan eco-city is an example of how the discourse has been built into the development’s identity. It may be of interest to note that a Gamuda Land development project similarly attempts to do this with its township project, Valencia, “home to migratory birds, various species of butterflies and insects, native trees, and overall lush greenery”. See National Geographic. 2021, May 3. Protecting biodiversity in Malaysia. Environment. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/partner-content-if-a-species-falls-and-no-one-sees. 

[19] Foster. 2002. The ecological tyranny of the bottom line. In John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism, Monthly Review Press, 33.

[20] Kamal S.F. 2010. Conversation and reflexivity: Roles of the social anthropologist in sustainable development projects. Man and Society 19, 49.

[21] Akademi Sains Malaysia (Producer). 2021, September 3. “Joyful Chaos in the Tropics” [webinar].

William Tham

His novel, The Last Days, is set in 1981 and covers the continuing legacy of the Malayan Emergency. He is currently an editor-at-large with Wasifiri and also an MA candidate at Universiti Malaya.

Yong-Yu Huang

is a Taiwanese student based in Penang. She doesn’t know where she’s headed, but she hopes there’ll be tea.