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Rare Species

Tuesday Mar. 25, 2003, Philippines

'Rare' species
A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines
By Robert S. Kennedy, Pedro C. Gonzales, Edward C. Dickinson, Hector C.
Miranda Jr., Timothy H. Fisher
Oxford University Press, 2000
535 pages

from Where are the spot-billed
pelicans? cormorants
Posted: 11:03 PM (Manila Time) | Mar. 24, 2003
By Constantino C. Tejero
Inquirer News Service

WE didn't know there were pelicans, cormorants, partridges, ibises and storks in this country -until we saw the book "A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines" by Robert S. Kennedy, et al.

Here, the spot-billed pelicans are recorded to have "once occurred in large numbers in Laguna de Bay and along the shore of Bulacan." Now those vagrants are "rare, possibly locally extinct - status not clear."

The great cormorant is also recorded to have occurred along the coastlines of the entire Luzon, but now it is also "rare." And so are the ibises and storks.

The black-faced spoonbill, once recorded in the tidal areas of Manila Bay, has not been seen since 1914.

The tiny Negros fruit-dove is known only from a single female specimen (now dried) obtained in 1953 on Mt. Kanlaon, with no subsequent sightings.

The status of the Daurian partridge, introduced in the Fort Bonifacio area in 1915, is "unknown-probably extirpated."

These are just a few of our birds that are now classified as "rare," "uncommon," "probably extirpated," "accidental," "expected," "no confirmed records," "status uncertain," "possibly extinct."

Where have all those birds gone? Where have we pushed the limit of their

habitats? What poisons have we laid in their nests?

Special Environment

It took foreigners - an American and two Englishmen, with the collaboration of two Filipinos - to record the extent of havoc we have brought upon these creatures. As stated on its back cover, this is the first comprehensive modern guide to the birds in the Philippines, and, as such, is our definitive ornithological record for posterity.

The book illustrates and describes every bird species in the country, including many subspecies. It contains 72 color plates especially painted for this publication, and 500 range maps in color (for instant distribution).

The authors have dedicated it, quite aptly, to Dioscoro Rabor and wife Lina, "whose pioneering field efforts for more than half of the 20th century helped shape the field of ornithology and conservation in the Philippines."

And also to aviator and conservationist Charles A. Lindbergh, "whose belief that the future of humankind depended on a balance between the natural world and technological progress, prompted him to respond to Dr. Rabor's conservation plea by visiting the Philippines to promote programs to save the endangered Philippine (monkey-eating) eagle and Mindoro dwarf buffalo, the tamaraw."

The authors note that the archipelago has provided "a special environment for the processes of evolution." And they marvel at this "wealth of biological diversity with one of the highest degrees of endemism in the world": Of the 572 species of birds known to occur in the Philippines, 172 are found only here. (And how, in our ignorance, We take that for granted!)

Poetic experience

Each color plate faces a page of maps where the species occur, their scientific names, and one-paragraph descriptions of each. The 146 pages of color plates and range maps on glossy paper constitute a slim volume by themselves, an art book, if you will.

In the main text, each species account gives more detailed descriptions of plumage, voice, range, distribution, status, habitat, life history and behavior. Also, there's a list of islands where each species has been recorded.

Most delightful is the previously unpublished information on songs or call notes. Consider a typical description, this one of the green-faced parrotfinch, and see if your toes wouldn't curl: "Contact call a tseet tseet or tsit tsit, and song a quiet deedeedeedee followed by a chattering day day day, ending with harsh grey-grey-grey-ray-day-lay-grey."

The book's language is inherently poetic, as is often the case when describing the natural world. Arguably the most poetic experience one can have of other living things is a sighting of birds (after flowers and butterflies, some would argue).

The amount of work that went into this book is quite admirable, if not outright monumental.

In many instances, it is precise to a fault, as when recording the voice of the spotted wood-kingfisher thus: "Gives a loud predawn, ringing whistle ptuuooo lasting 0.8 sec, which often precedes the main call, an explosive, stuttering trill tu-tu-tu-tu-tu rising for 1 sec, followed by 5 or 6 descending drawn-out tuuu tuuu tuu-a tuu-a tuu-a, each note

lasting about 0.4 sec spaced about 0.6 sec apart, with the whole series taking about 6-9 sec. Alarm call is a raspy chatter."

Acts of cruelty

Manila councilor Patrick Ocampo filed a proposed ordinance seeking to "prohibit the hunting and trapping of birds, or any acts of cruelty against all birds found in the city, whether resident or migratory."

Went the report: "Ocampo said he filed the bird bill after he was horrified by the sight of young people, armed with snares and slingshots, who killed and crippled mayas and other birds in city parks and other urban greenery pockets. He also said he had gone to many pet shops in the city and found that mayas and other small birds were dyed in bright and unnatural colors to attract buyers.

"Once approved, the ordinance would fine violators a maximum of 500 pesos, jail them for not more than two days, or both if the court decides."

500 pesos? Two days?

Anyway, that ordinance wouldn't be of much use now, because the city of Manila has a sparse bird population in the first place. The full extent of the law should be enforced in those areas where these feathered creatures really thrive.

We don't want to see the day when Nature, pushed to the limit, would get back at us, and bring to fulfillment Daphne du Maurier's truly terrifying story "The Birds."