Jeffrey Low

Sunday, January 31, 2010


The Hwamei (leucodioptron canorum, formerly garrulax canorus) was once amongst the most popularly kept songbirds in my country, until their availability was greatly affected by the restrictions imposed on this species. Most Singaporeans today live in flats and the popularity decline could also be partly due to the fact that the hwamei is too loud to be kept in these homes without sometimes annoying other family members as well as neighbours.

The ones commonly kept here is the nominate subspecies, leucodioptron canorum canorum. They are native to southern China and Indochina. There is another subspecies, leucodioptron canorum owstoni, native to the Hainan island. The Taiwanese hwamei, leucodioptron taewanum is now considered a separate species. In Taiwan, introduced l. canorum hybridises with the native species of l. taewanum. The Taiwanese species is now classified as "Near Threatened" by Birdlife International largely due to the extent of hybridisation with the mainland species (

The native Taiwanese species do not have the white eye-brows and are generally inferior to the mainland species in terms of song qualities. Some of the hybridised specimens have shortened white eye brows in comparison to the mainland species.

Hwameis are omnivorous but I also consider them to be facultative insectivores because they feed mainly on insects during the crop season when these are in abundance. After the crop season, they will switch to feeding on plant seeds. They are quite often described in published journals and articles by foreign authors to be also feeding on fruits found on the forest ground, a description that I think is quite frequently used for most ground feeding thrushes. From my understanding of a research paper done on the crop contents of this species and from what I had learned from good old-timer bird keepers from China, I had formed the opinion that fruits do not constitute a significant portion in the diet of the hwamei in the wild.

In captivity, non-breeding hwameis are known to do quite well on dry pellets formulated from grains and chicken feed, supplemented with live insects. Besides chicken feed, unpolished rice fried in egg yolks were also used in the past to feed this species and quite possibly could also be included as part of the recipes of the commercial pellets formulated for the hwamei here today. Unlike the shamas, they are not fussy eaters and most newly wild caughts will readily feed on the commercial pellets or plain chicken feed without much need to train them to do so. A chicken feed based dry food supplemented with live insects daily seems to be a close match to its natural wild diet. Unlike in the west, hwameis here are traditionally not given fruits as part of their diet. I would think that the people who had passed down the methods of feeding the captive hwamei to us here, knew the bird well enough, for it is afterall a native species of the land from which they had came from.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


When the Chinese migrants came to Singapore, they brought along with them their skills and methods of keeping songbirds. Their influences on the ways to keep and appreciate songbirds are still deeply rooted in the hobby here today. The use of circular chinese bamboo cages here, originates from these early migrants.

SIZES OF CAGES FOR EACH SPECIES: The sizes of circular chinese bamboo cages are defined by the diameters of the cages which is similar to the lengths of the centrally placed perches. The tradition to use the appropriate size for each species has changed very little over the years. 8 to 9 inches cages are used for oriental white-eyes, 10 to 12 inches cages for most finches, 14 inches cages for hwameis and magpie robins (slightly larger cages are sometimes used for these species today) and depending on the length of the tail feathers, cages 16 inches and above are used for white-rumped shamas.

VARIATIONS OF BAMBOO CAGES: There are slight variations at the lower part of the circular bamboo cages used for the different species. These slight variations take into consideration their different style of movemments. For examples, the bottom part of a 9 inches cage will come with a circular landing perch that will be raised
a few inches from the cage floor to cater to the smooth 'play' of the oriental white-eye. This provision of a circular perch below also takes into consideration the arboreal nature of this species and will prevent the birds from being forced to make unnatural and awkward landings on the cage floor. A 14 inches cage for the hwamei is provided with two flat landing areas at two opposite ends of the cage bottom, parallel to the perch. These will provide comfortable and appropriately spots for which the hwamei will naturally target to land with their typical up-down movements from the perch. Larger cages for the shamas do not have provisions for landing spots or perches below. These cages are provided only with a single central perch. There is no hinderance all the way down to the cage floor so as to cater for the ground-feeding natural behavior of the shama to feed on the cage floor. It is also a natural behaviour of this species to sometimes display and move about on the cage floor.

This hobby in my country also includes to a certain degree, the appreciation of traditional chinese art and crafts, often evident on the bamboo cages. Bamboo cages are crafted with traditional chinese
designs or figures depicting chinese legends and folklores. These are carved onto the cages' legs and some other parts of the cages. In the past, well-knowned craftmen in China would take many months to hand craft each cage and these are the ones most valued today. Just like antiques, higher monetary values are placed on old cages that are still in good condition. Machines are mostly used these days in China to make bamboo cages and to carve the designs.

Accessories for bamboo cages are made for practical as well as decorative purposes, usually serving dual purpose at the same time. Accessories made from elephant task ivories are most valued. Whether they are made from wood or ivories, these accessories are also crafted with designs to compliment the main design themes of the cages. Old porcelain cups for birds are valued just like old handcrafted cages.

WHY WE DO NOT PREFER AVIARIES OR LARGER CAGES: Unlike in the west, birds are being kept in bamboo cages without much consideration to sufficient space for exercise. As can be seen from the above sizes used for each species, there is only enough space for a bird to just move around and perhaps at best, with a slight flutter of the wings for exercise. Throughout the history of bird keeping here where birds are kept in the confined spaces of bamboo cages, there has not been much cause for concern for the lack of flight exercise. Granted that they are fed well and cared for, once acclimatised, these birds usually will live to a ripe old age, many exceeding a decade.

A bird that is well acclimatised to its surroundings and to its bamboo cage will over time, develop a 'cage play' (movements within the cage) that is most natural to its species. The size and variation of the bamboo cage will also help to define the type of cage play. Good cage play is highly desirable to the hobbyists here. Over time, a bird well acclimatized to the small space of a bamboo cage will also be conditioned to channel most of its energy into its songs and physical displays. The limited space within the cage can only heighten the intensity of the performance of an in-form bird with an abundance of energy. The same bird if kept in a spacious aviary could not have developed the desired cage play nor will it perform with the same intensity in the aviary where the abundant space will provide other options to dilute the energy during a performance.

SPECIES OF SONGBIRDS THAT ARE NOT KEPT IN CHINESE BAMBOO CAGES HERE: The keeping of the zebra dove as a songbird here in Singapore is the least influenced by the bird keeping traditions originating from the Chinese. The appreciation and methods of keeping this species is heavily influenced by the Thais who popularised this species of songbird in south east asia. Chinese bamboo cages are not used for these birds. The hobbyists of the red-whiskered bulbul in Singapore also do not use traditional chinese bamboo cages. The ways to appreciate the red-whiskered bulbul in Singapore has somewhat evolved over the years and has found its own unique form that requires the bird to be kept in tall cages, quite different from those used by other hobbyists of this species from our neighbouring countries.

Monday, January 18, 2010


In my country, the most popular species of songbirds kept are the oriental white eye, the red-whiskered bulbul, the white-rumped shama, the zebra dove and the hwamei. The main focus of our hobbyists of these species is on the abilities of male birds to perform well both at home and in gatherings, the latter having a very much higher priority. In this sense, it is almost taken as a sport, where the goal is to be able to do well at organised competitions or at casual gatherings.

The basic singing skills of a male song bird becomes almost unimportant if it cannot exhibit this in the presence of other male birds of the same species in the arenas. The worth of a songster lies not only in its ability to sing well but also in its showmanship, its physique, its stamina, its courage and willingness to perform, outside of its homeground and under the most intimidating and unnatural environment, packed with other male birds of the same species, sometimes numbering by the hundreds. An uninitiated wild bird watcher taken to the arena for the first time could just be amazed at the abilities of some of our better captive performers to defy the limits set by their wild cousins that he had witnessed in their natural environments. To achieve this, the ways songbirds here are chosen, kept and trained are quite different from those of the conventional western hobbyists. In some ways, the differences in appreciation and approach to the hobby is quite comparable to the differences between those of raising chickens for the fighting pit and raising chickens for the table.