Tuesday, June 08, 2004

The Red Jungle Fowl

Pulau Ubin plays host to a great assortment of birds - whether residents or migrants. Some of these birds are even endangered and as habitats are being destroyed all over the world, the population of these birds are become rarer yet! I must admit that I have never been much of a birdwatcher, but there is nothing more exciting on Ubin than the exhilarating moment of spotting a oriental-pied hornbill (first picture on the top left of this website) swoop right across your path or chancing the unique cry of the Red Jungle Fowl!

The Red Jungle Fowl was one of the first resident birds of Ubin that was introduced to me during my first Pedal Ubin! guide training in late 2003. I must say I feel like I have a sort of "karma" with this shy, elusive bird that I have yet to see on the island itself. Perhaps it is by no coincidence that the Pedal Ubin! guides are also called the "jungle fowls". However, it is wise not to confuse the jungle fowl with the "kampong ayams". Kampong ayams (kampong chicken) are actually to my knowledge the descendants of the jungle fowl. According to Ecology Asia, "Close to the kampongs (villages) the males (jungle fowls) will interbreed with domestic stock, producing a range of hybrids." Kampong Ayam would be better described as non-factory, subsistence-bred, traditionally free-roaming village chickens.

You may have guessed by now that the Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus) is actually the ancestor of the domesticated chicken. What then makes it so special since it is just another... chicken?

The red jungle fowl is said to be the original "chicken" from which all domestic chickens are descended based on comments and observations made by Darwin. (Source) Inbreeding, hybridisation and genetic engineering efforts in recent decades have taken us even further away from these natural birds. Therefore the small pockets of jungle fowl still living in the wild are almost living dinosaurs and are of great interest and value. (source) The endangered birds are protected under local law. Although native to this region, they can only be found in Singapore on Pulau Ubin. (source)

Unfortunately, I have never had the privilledge of setting my eyes on what can be described as our "national treasures", until this day! Knowing how rare this bird is, I seriously never had thought I would encounter it on mainland Singapore, much less at Sungei Buloh itself! I am almost 100% certain that it is the Jungle Fowl itself. However, how it got there I have absolutely no idea since Junglefowls are not known for their flying ability. They have curved rounded wings that enable swift flight. Unfortunately they can only fly for very short periods of time. (source)

When the children I was guiding at Buloh on Friday (4 June 2004) triumphantly announce to me that there were "chickens" hanging around the trees near the visitor centre, I wrote them off as being domesticated poultry that were remnants of farms in the area. I had originally told the children that there were probably no "chickens" at Buloh but obviously I was proven wrong. Nonetheless, nothing prepared me for the shock when I saw not one but 3 jungle fowls sitting calmly just 1.5 metres away from me. When I recovered from my shock, I quickly whipped out my camera and nervously tried to take some clear sharp photos of them but it seems impossible with my hands shaking.

I was certain they were Jungle Fowls because I had learnt the hard way how to identify them (if and when I would ever see them on Ubin!) It was during Dr Chua's talk in April that the Jungle Fowl came into discussion. I kept insisting that the Jungle Fowl's tail was upright or something ridiculous and was very sternly set straight that the way to identify a Jungle Fowl is with the following:

1. The tail is carried horizontally.
2. The female has no comb.
3. the pure strain of the male Red Jungle Fowl can be identified either by its grey legs and white cheeks
4. the male is vibrant in colour with gorgeous golden neck feathers and long dark green tail feathers (but this is common to all fowl species)
5. the truncated call

As you can see, the picture on the right is of the male and on the left, one appears to be a younger male and the pheasant looking female appears to be blocked by a branch. Notice the distinct white cheek and downwards tail of the males. It was obvious that they are Jungle Fowls. Compared to the domesticated chicken (rooster) below, you can see that the domesticated chicken usually has its tail upwards. Of course some chickens have been bred to have a very small comb but it does not have the pheasant like qualities of the jungle fowl females.

Still, theres no way better to differentiate the domesticated chicken and its ancestors than the difference in their call. Our poultry usually goes "cu-koo-koo-kooooooooooo" while the jungle fowl sounds like a "strangled chicken" thus the "truncated call" as it goes "cu-koo-koo. koo" like a chicken with a bad sorethroat. The best way to experience the call is to either stake out in Ubin and try to listen out for the elusive call or get somebody to mimick the cry for you! My 2 year old nephew was rather captivated when I went around the house practising my jungle fowl cry. He almost thought there was a chicken in the house and couldn't stop looking around for it when I was sitting right in front of him!

source and other reads:
  • Red Jungle Fowl
  • Illegal excavation on Pulau Ubin threatening birds and marine life
  • Ecology Asia
  • Background on Jungle Fowl
  • Pulau Ubin Fowls to be put down - Feb 2, 2004
  • No bird flu, but AVA to destroy 250 poultry from Pulau Ubin - Feb 1, 2004

    jacen said...

    Nice picture but the one by itself is not pure. It has white legs and no red junglefowl has this at any stage of its life. I am in the US and have several of the sub species of red junglefowl and hybrids from them and none have white legs in fact all have either blue or green color based legs. As for the other two in the other picture i can not see enough to make a call about them.

    Monkey said...

    interesting... i wonder if its a different subspecies variation? otherwise perhaps they have mixed with some other domestic species. However, it could be a poor colour correction issue because the one on the left image has blueish-green legs. This was quite a while back so I cannot ascertain for sure and the photo is rather blur. Sorry if I identified wrongly. Thanks for the alert :)

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