Fears grow that invasive bird species may cause havoc here

NEO CHAI CHIN Today Online 14 Jun 15;

SINGAPORE — Recent sightings of a destructive non-native bird species have alarmed some bird enthusiasts here, who have urged a relook of import policies for invasive species.

They fear that the Red-billed Quelea — sometimes referred to as “feathered locusts” as it damages crops and lives in huge flocks — will wreak environmental havoc by affecting native bird species here, if their numbers grow.

The bird is believed to have entered through the cage-bird trade, as it is found in Africa and is not a migratory species. It is considered the most abundant bird species in the world.

In the last two months, the Red-billed Quelea has been photographed at least twice here. Nature photographer Johnson Chua spotted it last month at Punggol Barat and sent the photo to Nature Society member Francis Yap, who sought the help of Dr Dieter Oschadleus from the University of Cape Town to identify the bird.

Mr Yap found another picture of the bird taken in March through his Facebook network. He then did some research and posted an article titled “World’s most destructive bird species now in Singapore” on the Nature Society’s Singapore Bird Group blog on Tuesday (May 12).

Calling for an import ban on the “environmentally and economically destructive” species, Mr Yap wrote that he has observed a drop in the number of native munias and weavers, after African grassland bird species including weavers, waxbills and queleas were released here in recent years.

He lauded the authorities’ efforts in urging people not to release animals in the lead-up to Vesak Day — the Operation No Release campaign will take place from tomorrow to the end of this month — but said the import of “dangerous species” should be banned in the first place by the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Imports of other alien species should be limited in the months leading up to Vesak Day, Mr Yap wrote, noting that quelea numbers have become “unstoppable” in their native land.

“What happens when this species takes hold in our region? Rice is an important crop for our neighbours and they are involved in high-yield agriculture,” he added.

But Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt, from National University of Singapore’s Department of Biological Sciences, believes the Red-billed Quelea poses “zero threat” to Singapore at this stage. “It would only have a chance to become established if many more individuals escape and reproduce in the Singaporean wild, which is unlikely,” he said. “Even if they do grab a foothold, they’re unlikely to persist for long because they’re badly adapted to Singapore’s super-humid climate, being birds of drier savannas and steppes.”

There is no case in the world where the quelea has been introduced and become a serious pest bird, Asst Prof Rheindt added.

Dr Oschadleus agreed, but said that in Australia and the United States, the bird is listed as a species to be particularly alert about as its introduction could potentially cause serious problems.

The AVA told TODAY that although no import restriction exists on the Red-billed Quelea, none have been recorded being brought in since 2010. There were no sightings of the bird in AVA’s urban bird survey last year and this year, and AVA has not received any public feedback on it to date, a spokesperson added.

Mr Chua, a member of the Nature Photographic Society, Singapore, told TODAY he visited Punggol Barat a week after he sighted the species, but did not see it this time.

Spotted: Destructive birds from Africa in S'pore
Feng Zengkun The Straits Times AsiaOne 17 May 15;

One of the world's most destructive birds has been seen in Singapore, but experts say the species has almost no chance of taking root and causing environmental havoc here.

The red-billed quelea, which has been called a "feathered locust" because it lives in large flocks that destroy crops, has been photographed at least twice here in the past two months.

The non-native bird is believed to have entered through the caged-bird trade as it is native to Africa and not a migratory species. The photographed birds may have escaped from their owners or could have been released as part of religious festivities.

On Tuesday, Nature Society member Francis Yap wrote an online post titled "World's most destructive bird species now in Singapore", which described the sightings and called for a ban on the import of dangerous species such as the quelea.

He added that one of the photographed queleas was a breeding female ready to lay eggs, based on its plumage in the photo.
Nature guide and part-time lecturer Lim Kim Seng said that if the bird proliferates here, it could compete with other birds with the same diet, such as munias, and lead to their decline.

"The quelea could clump in the thousands and deprive other birds of space to breed."

But Assistant Professor Frank Rheindt from the National University of Singapore's Department of Biological Sciences said the quelea is unlikely to pose a threat to Singapore's native birds.

He noted that the sightings so far have been of isolated birds. It would take many more birds for them to gain a foothold here.

"Many of these African birds, including the quelea, are also from the dry savannas," he said. "Singapore's humid climate is not optimal for them. It is very unlikely that you would see flocks of the quelea here, unless people suddenly start releasing dozens or hundreds of them."

The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority said there is no import restriction on the bird, but its records show none has been brought in since 2010. There were also no sightings of the quelea in its urban bird survey last year and this year and it has not received any public feedback on the bird to date.