environmental issues

Birds need your help. You can watch them.

Iya Gozum

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Birds need your help. You can watch them.

CLOSE TO YOU. Watching birds is a soothing hobby that can push people to reconnect with nature.

Art by DR Castuciano

Bird-watchers say the hobby can help conserve habitats and raise the public's awareness of environmental issues

MANILA, Philippines – In any idyllic setting where trees abound, one can pass the time by watching birds.

The first step is to listen to the songs of the birds – that should help locate them. When done multiple times – in your backyard, on campus grounds, in the mountains on the off chance you find yourself hiking – bird-watching can reveal certain quirky preferences and behaviors, like courtship dances and favorite perches.

Eventually, a hobbyist can invest in a pair of binoculars, learn to be more eagle-eyed when spotting birds, and identify them just through their sounds and calls.

“It’s both like a mindless and mindful activity,” described Jelaine Gan, a raptor biologist and instructor from the Institute of Biology at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

It’s a good antidote for today’s culture of doom scrolling.

It forces you to disconnect and to just reconnect with nature.

Finding sparks

Gan was introduced to bird-watching in high school when she joined a guided tour organized by the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines (WBCP) at the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park.

Before that, growing up, Gan took 40 lovebirds under her wing. Her interest in these creatures was primarily motivated by their visual appeal and charm.

But Gan quickly realized what was wrong with this kind of relationship when she started joining bird-watchers. Rather than cage them, it’s better to watch birds from afar, in the wild, because it is their natural habitat.

During her first guided tour, Gan saw a collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris). She considers this her “spark bird,” or the bird that started her love for bird-watching and all things avian.

SPARKED. A collared kingfisher (Todiramphus chloris) is considered a common and widespread resident of the Philippines. Art by DR Castuciano

The awe of spotting a collared kingfisher was sparked by Gan initially believing it lived only in other countries, not in the Philippines.

“Napaka-striking niya sa akin kasi noong time na ‘yun, noong unang bird-watching ko, hindi ko alam na may collared kingfisher dito sa Pilipinas.” (It was striking for me at the time because I didn’t know there were collared kingfishers in the Philippines.)

Indeed, an extensive list of birds awaits anyone who wants to take up this hobby.

“It’s addicting once you get started,” Gan said in a mix of Filipino and English. “There’s a challenge to it because, in the Philippines, we have over 700 species of birds. And a lot of them are endemic.”

According to the WBCP, as of 2022, the country is home to 245 endemic bird species. Endemic birds are those found only in certain regions of the Philippines.

Gateway to environmental advocacy

Eventually, Gan’s passion for birds would ignite a scholastic appreciation of nature and biology. Gan is now taking her doctorate degree at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, studying habitat fragmentation in Northern Luzon and how it affects migratory patterns.

Gan said bird-watching is a gateway for many to become environmental advocates.

Karen Ochavo, vice president of the WBCP, said this is because birds are reliable environmental indicators. Watching birds regularly helps create a database of the different species living in certain areas. This accounting also keeps track of the status of species threatened by extinction.

The WBCP regularly updates its checklist of birds in the Philippines with corresponding information, such as conservation status and range distributions or places where they can be found in the country.

The checklist has helped the government and other institutions’ conservation programs. Ochavo cited the example of the Las Piñas-Parañaque Wetland Park when it was declared a Ramsar site in 2013 under the Ramsar Convention – an international treaty for the conservation and proper utilization of wetlands – partly due to the data amassed by bird-watchers.

“Before a wetland site is declared as a Ramsar site, it has to be backed up by data,” said Ochavo. “The area supports a certain percentage of [the] population of migratory birds…. And some of the data came from the club.”

PYGMY. The Philippine pygmy woodpecker (Yungipicus maculatus) is an endemic bird species fairly common and widespread in the Philippines, but absent in Palawan and Sulu archipelago. Art by DR Castuciano
A black market of birds

But the Philippines’ biodiversity is a double-edged sword.

Illegal wildlife trade has become a multibillion-dollar industry around the world. In the Philippines, illegal wildlife trade is valued at P50 billion ($889.91 million), according to a report released by the Asian Development Bank in 2019. Palawan, Aurora, and Cagayan are hot spots for bird poaching.

Some of the most traded birds from the Philippines are the blue-naped parrots (Tanygnathus lucionensis) and the Palawan hill mynahs (Gracula religiosa palawanensis). Brahminy kites (Haliastur indus) are hunted as juveniles, while Luzon lowland scops owls (Otus megalotis) are poached by hunters and sold on the street, the black market, and even online.

Online selling of birds gained ground during the pandemic, said Ochavo. Bird-watchers and advocates have had to resort to reporting groups and individuals selling birds through social media platforms, but Ochavo admitted this is not as sustainable as raising public awareness.

“It’s really hard online,” said Ochavo. “People can just remove their profiles and then create a new one.”

Environment Secretary Toni Yulo-Loyzaga acknowledged the proliferation of “insidious” wildlife trade in the country and said the department needs all the help it can get.

“We need the support of the public in terms of reporting to us [about] illegal wildlife trade,” Loyzaga said after a tree-planting activity on Monday, June 5, at the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife Center, considered the country’s national rescue center. The park is home to rescued birds such as Girlie, the Philippine eagle caught in Bukidnon in 1982.

“We also need the support of both public and private [sectors] for the enhancement of this wildlife rescue center,” she added.

For 2023, the NAPWC has an allocated budget of P6.641 million ($118,204.09). The bulk of the fund came from the income generated by the park in 2022 from entrance fees, facility rentals, concessionaires, and parking fees.

Budget remains a big constraint to developing retrieval and rescue operations, the environment secretary said. “Every year, we have to battle for a budget.”

Start simple

The dream is to create and expand protected areas where wildlife can thrive peacefully.

“Hopefully, if we have enough support, we will have a space here also for Philippine marine and coastal environments,” Loyzaga said, referring to the Ninoy Aquino park. “So that in one area in the city, you can come and experience the whole of the country’s natural resources in terms of biodiversity.”

Because of rampant development and degradation of forests, birds are losing their homes. When remaining forests are splintered, this affects the welfare and movement of birds, said Gan.

“One issue is if it’s okay for birds to migrate and pass through areas of development,” she explained in a mix of Filipino and English. Restricted movement means restricted resources; Gan likened this situation to the pandemic experience of having to stay in one area.

YELLOW. In 1760, French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson called the olive-backed sunbird ‘Le petit grimpereau des Philippines,’ which roughly translates to ‘small Philippine creeper.’ Art by DR Castuciano

This is why saving the Philippines’ protected areas is crucial in taking care of the birds that consider this country home.

Ochavo, who studied environmental science and has seen the improvement of the field through the years, is optimistic that the country will soon strike a balance between development and protection.

“It’s like a slow progression, but we’re getting there. So 10 years from now, hopefully, more protected areas, more sustainable development,” she said.

In the meantime, Ochavo encourages more people to try bird-watching as a first step toward what could be a lifelong passion and respect for nature.

“It’s something that can be done with friends or family. It’s a really accessible activity. It’s as simple as that,” she implored.

“Go bird-watching.” – Rappler.com

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Iya Gozum

Iya Gozum covers the environment, agriculture, and science beats for Rappler.