Where are the birds?

I don’t know where the birds are. I’ve been in the city of Ketapang for about a week now, and I’ve managed to find only seven species of birds. Seven. Three swifts, a swallow, a bulbul, a sparrow, and a munia. That’s it. It’s not like Ketapang is some bustling concrete metropolis! It’s a rather quiet tropical town filled with trees and flowering plants and surrounded by rivers and mangrove shorelines.

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tree-lined roads are a common sight in Ketapang

Over the weekend, I headed west of the city center towards the shoreline. Along the way, I crossed a river lined with tall reeds—a perfect spot for kingfishers, I thought. Nope. Not a single bird. A bit farther, I passed through a series of wet, grassy fields dotted with the occasional shrub or brush pile. In most places across the tropics, habitat like this would be full of egrets, kingfishers, and a host of other avian characters. Not here, I guess.

So why the lack of birds? I imagine the pollution has something to do with it. The rivers and wet fields didn’t appear to be too flooded, but the sources that feed them surely are. A variety of drainage canals and run-off channels can be found throughout Ketapang, and these waterways are loaded with waste: plastic, human waste, and motor oil being the most obvious.

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garbage floating with Pistia stratiotes along a street in Ketapang

The public shows little concern towards the pollution problem, as piles of garbage and smelly heaps of burning trash are commonplace. That said, some wildlife manages to survive. As disgustingly contaminated as the water appears to be, some fish and aquatic insects manage to survive. There are dragonflies all over the city, for example.

It could also have something to do with the cats. Studies in the United States suggest that feral and free-ranging cats can have a tremendous impact on birdlife, and there are cats everywhere here. It seems that most of the cats here are not regularly fed by humans (even the ones with collars that hang out in people’s houses), which could exaggerate the bird-killing phenomenon. I have not witnessed any hunting, but then again, there are hardly any birds for the cats to kill.

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a cat climbing onto the roof near where I am staying in Ketapang

However, my disappointment in the lack of diversity shouldn’t be an indication of the quality of the few birds I have seen! In fact, I plan to write a post about the swiftlets of Ketapang soon, as they play an important economic role here in Ketapang. Also, unlike most cities I’ve been to on Planet Earth, there are no invasive Rock Pigeons or House Sparrows here, which is a nice treat! There are Eurasian Tree Sparrows, a close cousin of the House Sparrows, but I so seldom see this species that it still feels like a novelty.

I’ve only been here since last Tuesday, and the coming weeks will provide more opportunities to get away from the city (and much of the garbage and maybe some of the cats…). I hope there are some birds.

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