Undergrad studies rare red junglefowl after spotting them in wild
Grace Chua Straits Times 25 Dec 10;
PHOTO: SUBARAJ RAJATHURAI
UNDERGRADUATE Amanda Tan spent half of this year counting chickens.
Miss Tan, 21, had spotted some odd- looking wild chickens in her Bukit Batok neighbourhood, and realised they were red junglefowl, listed as endangered in Singapore.
Red junglefowl (Gallus gallus) are considered the wild ancestors of domestic chickens, and are native to South-east Asia and much of East Asia.
In Singapore, there are no records of red junglefowl until the 1980s, when bird-watchers began spotting them on Pulau Ubin and speculated they had flown in from Malaysia.
Today, they are seen in far eastern and western Singapore, in Changi and Lim Chu Kang. But the Bukit Batok sightings were new.
So in May, Miss Tan decided to do a research project to track them down, as part of her biology studies at the National University of Singapore.
She counted six red junglefowl in her neighbourhood - but nowhere else in the area - and observed their behaviour. She set up a website asking the public to recount their sightings at tinyurl.com/habitatnews-records.
The work is a feather in Miss Tan's cap, and she is considering extending her red junglefowl research to an honours thesis next year.
But to a layman, the differences between the red junglefowl and a domestic rooster can be hard to spot.
For one thing, a farmyard chicken is meatier.
The red junglefowl's call is strangled at the end, whereas a rooster's is longer and trails off - as Miss Tan obligingly demonstrated.
A male junglefowl has white ear patches and a whitish rump above its tail, while a rooster has none; the former has grey legs while the latter's are buff or pink.
And unlike its domestic relatives, it can take to the air.
'These chickens don't have to cross the road,' said veteran nature guide Subaraj Rajathurai, who advised Miss Tan in her search. 'They can just fly across.'
In fact, just last month, he spotted one strolling calmly through Tanjong Pagar, and speculated it could be an escapee or a released bird.
The shy fowl have been spotted in central areas from Thomson to Commonwealth, according to unconfirmed reports.
While they are listed here as endangered, they are common in South-east Asia, and are likely to spread around Singapore, Mr Rajathurai said.
The wild birds are likely to be spreading around the island through green spaces and corridors, as they live at forest edges and adapt well to various environments.
That is a good thing, said Mr Rajathurai, as red junglefowl here would fill an important ecological niche.
'They feed on invertebrates and grain or seeds from grasses, and would be able to control the population of bugs that would have few ground-dwelling predators,' he explained.
The major threat to wild red junglefowl, in fact, is genetic pollution - they can breed with free-ranging domestic chickens and roosters.
But that is not a concern now - free-ranging chickens were culled some years ago to prevent bird-flu outbreaks.
Rare and endangered species in Singapore
THE red junglefowl is listed as 'endangered' in Singapore. There are fewer than 250 mature birds but there is no evidence of decline. In fact, their numbers could be on the rise.
Critically endangered species are those with fewer than 50 mature individuals islandwide.
Endangered and critically endangered species in the country include:
# The banded leaf monkey (Presbytis femoralis): Lives in the forests of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. Earlier this year, National University of Singapore researchers found more here than previously thought.
# The saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus): Occasionally seen basking in estuaries and reservoirs. It is listed as critically endangered.
# The berus mata buaya mangrove (Bruguiera hainesii): Named for the crocodile eye-like protrusions on its trunk. It is one of the world's rarest mangrove species, with only a handful in Singapore.
# The Singapore freshwater crab (Johora singaporensis): Found only in Singapore - in Bukit Timah and Bukit Batok. It is listed as critically endangered.
# The fluted giant clam (Tridacna squamosa): A reef dweller, among the largest of all bivalve molluscs. It is endangered because of habitat loss and its use as food.