The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines
The official website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines

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Diliman's wildlife

Pinoy Kasi by Michael Tan
Philippine Daily Inquirer
2:17 AM | Wednesday, November 19th, 2014


The killing of a black bittern, a wild bird, in the UP Diliman lagoon set off exchanges in social media with varying positions and emotions.

The eyewitness report was first posted on the Facebook site of Amado (Mads) Bajarias. His wife, Lu-Ann Fuentes, a UP graduate and, it turns out, a former student of mine, has been in touch with the UP administration.

Lu-Ann and Mads were bird-watching at the lagoon on Nov. 9, a Sunday, when they heard a commotion, which turned out to be three men going after the bittern. When they got to the scene the bird had been hacked to death. The men, apparently oblivious of the fact that they had broken the law, the Wildlife Resources Conservation and Protection Act of 2001, even posed for a photo with the dead bird.

The report was posted without intention of blaming anyone, not even the three men. The aim was to raise more awareness about the law, and the need to protect our wildlife, which could technically extend to include the frogs and fish in the lagoon, which were what the men were after.

We tend to think of Quezon City in terms of the memorial circle, lots of malls, and several of the country's largest barangays, with thousands of urban poor. But the city also has some of the largest urban wildlife areas, including the La Mesa Dam area and UP Diliman. The Loyola campus of Ateneo de Manila and, I suspect, Miriam College, also have wildlife. In UP Diliman close to 100 species of birds have been reported, with new ones still being spotted.

"Wildlife" conjures images of fierce animals but, really, the only fierce species in the area is Homo sapiens, also known as human beings. Besides the birds, we have all kinds of amphibians, reptiles and mammals.

So what's the big deal about providing a refuge for the birds and other wildlife? Shouldn't human needs come first? Perhaps all the three men, who come from an informal settler community, wanted was food.

Diliman, the fern

Lu-Ann and Mads are with the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, which has volunteered to work with UP on information and education programs for our police and security guards, and then the communities, emphasizing Diliman as a site to demonstrate the intricate relationships among all living species. It is not a matter of choosing one over the other, but of maintaining a healthy ecosystem from which all can benefit.

Our trees are famous, but until recently, even UP faculty were not aware that many of the trees were not indigenous. The beautiful acacia trees are the prime example, growing rapidly but never really quite adapted to our environment. With age, they have become vulnerable, as Typhoon "Glenda" showed, easily toppling several of them, together with gmelina, which was popular for tree-planting projects but turns out to be a water-hungry tree with roots that throttle other nearby trees and plant life, and destroys concrete pavements, streets and walls.

Prodded by National Scientist Ed Gomez and the late botanist Leonard Co, we are identifying trees and plant life endemic to our region, which have a better fit with our environment. It took a bit of detective work with a retired plant expert, Emil Sotalbo and one of our historians, to even find diliman, which is a fern that used to be found everywhere in the Diliman area but is now practically extinct. It is found only in two places on campus, which we are keeping a secret for now as we try to get it to thrive again.

Meanwhile, though, there are hundreds of other species of plants doing very well. And the large numbers of wild birds reflect a healthy ecosystem, providing a habitat as well as breeding grounds. The black bittern's death caused much anguish because it is rarely found, being quite secretive. In fact, I've been thinking that the UP lagoon, because it is not frequented by humans (yes, not even by the notorious breeding kind), was what attracted the bittern.

Eternal love

I wanted to use a more "extroverted" wild bird to demonstrate how animals and plants fit into particular niches. Not too far from the lagoon, in a more "public" place receiving much sunlight, is a community of almost-elegant white birds with orange plumage on the head and chest. These are cattle egrets, known in Tagalog as tagak (Dr. Perry Ong, of the Institute of Biology, gave me that name, and reminded me about the song that pledges loving someone until crows (uwak) turn white, and tagak turn black).

Their name came about because they tend to hang out with cattle. In the Philippines, you tend to find two or three of them hanging out with a carabao or water buffalo.

In UP Diliman, we have a large number of egrets—at least 20 of them (Perry Ong reported having seen as many as 50)—hanging out with… goats. Why this bird-mammal friendship?

This is an example of symbiosis. The egrets trail cattle, carabaos, or goats because as the mammals walk through the vegetation, they disturb the insects and occasional frogs, who start to move and become easier prey for the egrets.

You'll also find the egrets flying up into the air and landing on the carabaos and cattle, almost as if to reciprocate the kindness of their barkada. They don't just sit on the backs but pick the ticks off the cattle and carabaos, which the latter seem to enjoy, much like a person having hair lice (kuto) removed. I've thought of what a charming children's story this could be, with imaginary conversations between the carabao, or cow, and its egret friends as it gets "de-ticked." (I haven't seen the egret sitting on the back of goats, but who knows, maybe in time.) I am hoping that UP and environmentalist groups can produce audiovisual materials and brochures about the wildlife of Diliman, if not Quezon City, to encourage people to learn more about, and love, our environment. This includes benefits for humans—for example, even the frogs, which are hunted down to supply materials for biology students in dissection classes, are needed to control mosquitoes.

The Department of Tourism has produced two volumes on birds in several wildlife preserves in the Philippines, and the books are well-appreciated in other countries, bringing in tourists with a strong interest in our wildlife.

I'd be more modest, aiming to get fellow Filipinos to appreciate the wildlife and our environment in Diliman, in Quezon City, and beyond.

I ask people to be patient as we go about this. Diliman has 490 hectares of land, with thousands of people and assorted animals moving in and out each day. There's a whole ethos that needs to be transformed, one which looks at human beings as having been put on earth to dominate all forms of life, to use at our pleasure, even at the cost of maiming or killing, not necessarily for food but for sport.

Think about it: we have hundreds of fighting cocks being raised by faculty, staff and other residents in the Diliman campus. Even construction workers assigned to Diliman will leave their families behind in the provinces, but bring their fighting cocks. They're probably thinking, What's all this fuss about some wild bird? * * *