Running thoughts: Nature lover?

The online Oxford dictionary defines

Nature lover – A person who enjoys spending time in the countryside and observing wild animals and plants

The Urban dictionary defines

Nature lover – useless human being, who probably has made more friends with trees than humans

What makes a nature lover?

Looking up for ‘real nature lover’ quizzes on Google yielded extremely few results (2 to be exact). Going through these quizzes, it is easy to know the ‘right’ answer to get the intended result e.g. choosing whether to go to the park or going to the mall. By the online Oxford dictionary, a nature lover is simply someone who likes nature whether it is a park or the wilderness and enjoys it in his/her spare time. Anyone can proclaim that they are a nature lover with such a general definition, from environmentalist and conservationist to your average citizen that likes greenery.

In Singapore, you see greenery (to many different extents) everywhere and this might make a love for greenery is easy to cultivate. Trees and shrubs enhance the man-made environment and a break from all the concrete buildings is much appreciated. We take pride in our ‘City in a Garden’.

Furthermore, ‘nature lover’ is much like a personality type. Nature is perceived as something peaceful and calm and being a nature lover labels you with these personality traits. It is something positive that some people would want to be associated with. (nature lover is also associated with the favorite color green or blue in unprofessional online personality quizzes)

What about a real nature lover?

Being real suggests that a person is committed and has taken and currently taking actions to support nature-related causes. You have to be in an organisation of some sort, have an environmental friendly lifestyle and advocate conservation or sustainability. It is like an elite or professional class. One that has real knowledge and brings real change.

I am not a real nature lover. At least not real enough. When HDB (Housing Development Board) estates were provided with recycling bins in the common areas in August 2007, only then did my family started to recycle on a daily basis since it is much more convenient now.

Photo credit: NEA

I used to pass through the neighbourhood park to get to and back from primary school and sometimes to excercise but after that visiting the park to enjoy nature is rare. I do not visit Sungei Buloh and other nature reserves or the Singapore Zoo on a regular basis. I definitely use more electricity than I need such as using my computer instead of a walk in the park. I am not a vegetarian and have made no effort to eat less meat but I do try to cut down on food wastage. I am not a member of the Singapore Nature Society or other environmental groups but only very recently started volunteering at ACRES. I do not know the local biodiversity very well and I do not go bird-watching. I try to nudge people into being more environmentally friendly but I do not pressure them if they refuse.

But I am a (normal?) nature lover. Nature invokes in me a sense of wonder and we have much to learn from and about it. Nature is complex and beautiful and is something unique to be preserved and admired. The fact that the tree beginning to block the view from my living room window continues to grow regardless of what happens in the economic markets or the entertainment industry gives nature a kind of presence. A strong presence that I feel should not be ignored.

Richard Conniff mentioned on one of his wordpress articles about how “Wildlife is and should be useless in the same way art, music, poetry and even sports are useless.”. There are some similarities with wildlife and art and sports. Not everyone has an interest in them and some of those that do are professional artists/critics or hard-core fans much like how nature has its real nature lovers. But nature, art and sports itself is not useless, more like the love of them is useless to some if not most people. Loving nature is useless as nature cannot, in human terms, love you back. It is something you do for yourself and therefore not everyone sees a purpose to love nature. Instilling a love for nature and brainwashing has to start from young.

Appreciating art and sport requires a certain amount of knowledge. If you are not an artist yourself, studied art, able to name famous artists and their works, you cannot really claim yourself to be an art lover.The same goes for sports where you have to know some famous sport players, regularly watch games and get in on rumours.

Photo credit: thatguyxlr

Lingo is also a large barrier to cross. In nature, you might need to know many species names and their corresponding characteristics and habitats and those who do not know much might not be considered real nature lovers.

These barriers exist naturally but we should not feel too excluded. Some might be intimidated or discouraged and see ‘nature loving’ in black and white, that you either are or are not a nature lover. Awareness and appreciation for nature is essential if we are to preserve it. Whatever environmental friendly steps you take, no matter how small, might not impact the world as a whole but it does show your care and thoughtfulness. But it would be great to continually improve your knowledge and be aware. The easiest way is through the internet and social media. You can ‘like’ a nature-related page on Facebook, follow people on Twitter or blogs or subscribe to a YouTube channel.

Nature lover is not a job but an identity and a hobby. Anyone can take it up and there really isn’t a set of rules to follow. Do not feel pressured and take up the title even if you know little about nature. There is no minimum effort or qualification required and many people are already incorporating it into their personality.As long as you are able to see the beauty in it, take the time to enjoy it and if you can, help preserve it.



Urban: Filling the skies

Birds capable of flight travel wherever and whenever they please. Compared to the land space humans have populated, there is still extensive air space within and above urban areas for birds to roam, making them one of the most noticeable aspect of nature in cities aside from insects and flora. Some flight birds also roost in elevated places much like how Singaporeans live in high-rise buildings. Might urban areas be a suitable habitat for both humans and birds?

Adapting to urban life

The broad environmental tolerance of urban bird species may allow them to adapt to human environments more easily then rural bird species (Bonier et al., 2007). Sol et al.(2005) finds that birds with larger relative brain size are able to respond better to new environmental conditions with their enhanced cognitive skills. Check out the crows in the video.

Some urban birds have been observed incorporating cigarette butts into their nests. Suárez-Rodríguez et al. (2013) finds that this reduces the number of nest-dwelling ectoparasites. However, potentially toxic chemicals in cigarette butts could harm the birds too.

Møller (2008) found that the relative flight distance of urban bird populations was lower than their rural counterparts and was positively related to the number of generations of the urban population since urbanization, “suggesting that as time has passed, urban and rural populations have diverged in terms of flight distance.”. This means species found in urban environments are not inherently adaptive but individuals of a species that can adapt to urban life are selected for. In other words, the mynas and pigeons in Singapore can tolerate close distances with humans might not be because it they are an adaptive species but because they are the descendants of individuals who can.

Change in the songs of urban birds are also observed. Patricelli & Blickley (2006) discussed the changes in the frequency, amplitude, temporal and timing aspects of urban bird songs. Birds can adjust the frequency of their songs in response to the low frequency urban noise and/or increase the amplitude or loudness of their songs but this could be limited by the size of the bird and the energetic costs of singing louder. Temporal structure refers to the timing of modulations, notes and syllables in a vocalisation which can affect ability of other birds to detect the call while timing refers to the time of the day the birds sing.

Bonier (2012) reviewed findings regarding endocrine ecology of urban birds and concluded that “The current urban endocrine ecology literature does not reveal any consistent patterns, but has demonstrated that populations of birds in urban habitat often exhibit differences in endocrine traits, particularly hormone concentrations, when compared to conspecifics in nonurban habitat.”. This shows even more changes that the urban environment can inflict on birds.

Bird in black

The common myna is considered a feral species in Australia and was declared among “100 of the World’s Worst Invasive Species” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2000. Introduced to Canberra in 1968, they have become one of the most common feral birds in Canberra with increasing concern over their impacts on local biodiversity such as competing with native species for nesting hollows (Tidemann, 2001). In Singapore, mynas are also considered as pests mostly due to it being a nuisance to humans but locals are quite tolerant of them. After all, we do not have to clean up after them and most are not aware of the threats to local biodiversity by exotic species.

There are 2 species of mynas found in Singapore. The Javan myna prefers green patches among residential areas while the common myna prefers the rural landscape (Lim et al., 2003).

8512585881_493d7d92f0_o Common myna or Indian myna Acridotheres tristis
Javan Myna or White-vented myna                            Common myna or Indian myna
Acridotheres javanicus                                                                Acridotheres tristis
Photo credit: Sergey Pisarevskiy                                 Photo credit: Sergey Yeliseev

Mynas can be kept as pets and they are able to imitate sounds too. Most of us take little notice of these very abundant birds in Singapore but they are being admired and demanded in other countries.

The common hill myna (Gracula religiosa) does a way better job.

Not all benefit

In a study by Lim & Sodhi (2004) in Singapore, generally the number of native species decreases with increasing levels of urbanisation while the number of exotic species increases. Insectivorous species, shrub nester and primary excavator abundance decreased with increasing urbanisation due to the lack of food and nesting sites. Meanwhile, granivourous, frugivorous, tree nesters and secondary cavity nesters increase in abundance due to availability of food from anthropogenic sources and nest sites in tall shade trees and human structures.

Chong et al. (2012) reveals increasing abundance of bird species in Singapore over the past 10 years but many of them are exotic. This study investigated the change in bird abundance over the past decade and compared their results to another survey done in 2000-2001. The Javan myna in the study area was found to have (status: exotic) increased from 1955 to 3238. You see them everywhere in Singapore.

Some birds are able to adapt well to our urban environment and provide a tiny slice of nature for us to see. However, they are also considered pests by humans when they make too much noise, dirty places with their droppings and threaten local biodiversity. I have noticed huge numbers of mynas crowding around one or two trees making so much noise and the pavement below the tree will be covered in their droppings. Meanwhile, urban areas do not provide suitable nesting sites or proper food for many other bird species especially native species who are adapted to forests and mangroves in Singapore. With increasing urbanisation, many bird species will still be threatened as they cannot adapt to live alongside us in our cities.

Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on creating specific habitats for different bird species rather than simply greening urban areas. Birds are able to move around freely and choose places most suitable for them but in Singapore, we are only made up of islands. The mainland has mostly been urbanised and since birds do not recognise country boundaries, if they do not find a suitable habitat here, they have no other places to go except to leave the country entirely. Furthermore, urban environments can act as a force of selection that causes phenotypic and genetic divergence within bird species resulting in a sort of urban subspecies different from that of the rural population. This means we would not exactly be preserving the species in their natural or original form.

Bonier, F. (2012). Hormones in the city: Endocrine ecology of urban birds.Hormones and behavior, 61(5), 763-772.

Bonier, F., Martin, P. R., & Wingfield, J. C. (2007). Urban birds have broader environmental tolerance. Biology letters, 3(6), 670-673.

Chong, K.Y., Teo, S., Kurukulasuriya, B., Chung, Y.F., Rajathurai, S., Lim, H.C., Tan, H.T.W. (2012). Decadal changes in urban bird abundance in Singapore. Raffles Bulletin of Zoology. Suppl. 25: 181-188.

Lim, H. C., & Sodhi, N. S. (2004). Responses of avian guilds to urbanisation in a tropical city. Landscape and Urban Planning, 66(4), 199-215.

Lim, H. C., Sodhi, N. S., Brook, B. W., & Soh, M. C. (2003). Undesirable aliens: factors determining the distribution of three invasive bird species in Singapore. Journal of Tropical Ecology, 19(06), 685-695.

Møller, A. P. (2008). Flight distance of urban birds, predation, and selection for urban life. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 63(1), 63-75.

Patricelli, G. L., & Blickley, J. L. (2006). Avian communication in urban noise: causes and consequences of vocal adjustment. The Auk, 123(3), 639-649.

Slabbekoorn, H., & Ripmeester, E. A. (2008). Birdsong and anthropogenic noise: implications and applications for conservation. Molecular Ecology, 17(1), 72-83.

Sol, D., Duncan, R. P., Blackburn, T. M., Cassey, P., & Lefebvre, L. (2005). Big brains, enhanced cognition, and response of birds to novel environments.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 102(15), 5460-5465.

Suárez-Rodríguez, M., López-Rull, I., & Garcia, C. M. (2013). Incorporation of cigarette butts into nests reduces nest ectoparasite load in urban birds: new ingredients for an old recipe?. Biology letters, 9(1), 20120931.

Tidemann, C. R. (2001). Mitigation of the impact of mynas on biodiversity and public amenity. School of Resources, Environment & Society, the Australian National University.

Running thoughts: We decide

Where they live

Plans to move the Jurong Bird Park to the Mandai area were mentioned during the “Ask the Prime Minister” forum on Channel NewsAsia recently. This is to move it closer to the other three parks run by Wildlife Reserves Singapore to make it more convenient for visitors to get from the Singapore Zoo, Night Safari and River Safari to the bird park. This move has had me thinking of the amount of control we have over animals. We decide where they live and what they eat. The birds have no say in the move and we have no way to ask them.

Zoos and marine parks are surrounded by controversy which I will cautiously touch on in the future. On one hand they provide education to the public and play a role in conservation either by taking in injured and sick animals or carrying out breeding programmes for endangered species. On the other hand these animals are also exhibited for entertainment purposes and live under human care and in an artificial restricted space. Are the animals better off in guaranteed safety or happier in their natural habitats? Or rather, which is better for us humans?

How they look

The shade trees along side our roads did not grow there naturally nor did the shrubs and bushes around our buildings. They are almost all planted by NParks with many considerations. Singapore did not build buildings around plants, we plant plants around our buildings and we decide what plants to plant. Primary forests patches are rare in Singapore with the two largest being in Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Central Catchment Nature Reserve.

We are truly a city in a garden for a garden is man-made. During the 2014 national day rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to change the layout of the Jurong Lake District. He said “On the west side of the lake, there is Jurong Lake Gardens or Jurong Lake Park and they are really three different pieces. But if we bring them all together, we can redesign the whole area. You can change the islands, you might merge them. You can change the shape of the lake, which is right now a little bit awkward. You can create one beautiful set of gardens in our heartlands and that can be Jurong Lake Gardens and can be something really special.”. It is truly amazing the control we have over our space.

What nature is

When we say ‘nature’ we expect some untouched by man but ‘true nature’ is hard to find in Singapore. The biggest challenge Singapore faces is space. A forest and a residential building cannot occupy the same space. Animals like us require space to live and roam. I think it will be impossible for the malayan tiger or asian elephant to ever return to mainland Singapore for there simply is no space for them to roam.

We can also decide what animals and plants we do not want. Mosquitoes are something Singaporeans do not want in Singapore’s environment and so are large carnivorous animals like the tiger. The website STOMP has many images of snakes and monitor lizards (almost all are native species) and even monkeys which we all know are found in Singapore. Every few months my own home would be overrun by ants. I thought I had eradicated them with ant bait/poison but it appears that they never left so every few months they would return in droves, haunting their old ant trials and eventually disappear again as I start cleaning up the house and sealing all the food containers. 

I was watching the news on Mediacorp Channel 5 a few days ago and they discussed about the setting up the Municiple Services Office which will coordinate all the government agencies. They interviewed a lady and the issue was related to monkeys. She had spotted monkeys in her neighbourhood and first called the police but the police said it was not their responsibility and she had to call someone else. In the end the monkeys left on their own. It is not the lack of coordination of the agencies that I want to focus on but the fact that before the lady could find the right agency, the monkeys already left by themselves. It was not mentioned if the monkeys were being a nuisance.

The lives of most Singaporeans would continue on undisturbed by the lack of native animals. Flora is much easier to control and require less space than animals and also provide the beauty of nature. I guess ‘nature’ in Singapore is largely defined by the flora and birds while monkeys and reptiles are better off (for us) contained in nature reserves and parks. Insects appear to be the least appreciated by majority of the locals and I have never come across any ‘shocking’ insects in STOMP compared to the endless pictures of snakes. 

Unless we instill a sense of wonder for nature and appreciation for both fauna and flora in all Singaporeans, it is unlikely that we would get a unified move to protect the local environment. However, much of Singapore’s environment is controlled and shaped to our needs. Is it already too late? Should we just keep the ‘nature’ we want, ignore the less desirable fauna or flora and contain ‘nature’ in specific areas for our convenience?

The answer that comes to me is one that I do not want. My first thoughts were ‘yes’ to both questions but I find it sad to control nature for our convenience. It seems really lonely for us humans to only recognize ourselves as beings who have needs.