Fowl talk in Parliament

Feb 20, 2017 07.00PM |

by Wan Ting Koh

IT WAS a question raised earlier this month when the media reported first that some 20 chickens in Sin Ming area were culled after noise complaints. It was asked again this afternoon. Were there red junglefowl, an endangered species native to Singapore and the ancestor to the common chicken, in the vicinity of the ill-fated chickens?

The Member of Parliament who asked is the founder of Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), Mr Louis Ng. Mr Ng said he had seen photos of the chickens at Sin Ming area and that some of them were the red junglefowl.

In reply, Minister of State for National Development Dr Koh Poh Koon said that the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA), which was responsible for the culling, would need to conduct genetic studies to ascertain the species of the birds found in the Sin Ming area. He added: “So I think this is the point that is difficult for us to ascertain the truth just by speaking like this in this House.”

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But Dr Koh’s point does seem to contradict media reports where AVA said that the free-ranging chickens that have been seen on mainland Singapore are not red junglefowl – something which Mr Ng pointed out. Said Mr Ng: “Just to clarify; because AVA had mentioned earlier that the free ranging chickens seen on mainland Singapore are not the red jungle fowl. That statement is inaccurate.”

Was AVA unsure? Why the need for genetic studies?

So what about those birds wandering around Sin Ming that looked like red junglefowl? A documentary narrated by renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough showed what looked like red junglefowl in the Sin Ming area. These birds have grey legs and white ear patches, as compared to the free-ranging chicken which usually has yellow legs. The birds in the video were also caught in flight, something that common chickens are unable to do.

Earlier this month, AVA said it had culled 24 free-roaming chickens in Sin Ming after getting 20 complaints from residents last year about noise from the birds. The news triggered a public outcry with some asking why AVA didn’t relocate the birds instead. AVA director-general Dr Yap Him Hoo later said in a letter that the culling was due to public health concerns, particularly, the risk of bird flu that the chickens pose to humans.

Dr Koh touched more on this issue today. He said that free-ranging chickens have a higher risk than other birds, such as mynah birds and pigeons, of being infected with and transmitting the bird flu virus to humans.

Non-constituency MP Dr Daniel Goh and Mr Ng asked what threshold of chicken population was acceptable before the authorities would step in to do some population control. Dr Koh did not give a definite answer.

Dr Koh said that AVA conducts ground surveillance to determine the level of risk the free-ranging birds pose to the public. In the case of the Sin Ming chickens, AVA found that the population of birds had more than doubled from 20 in 2014 to more than 50 in 2015. He added that AVA reduced the population of chickens close to “baseline level”, even though there was no “magic number” to tell when the authorities should intervene. Even though there are no guidelines for the numbers, AVA took the approach to reduce the risk of bird flu to an “acceptable level”, said Dr Koh.

When asked by Mr Ng about the actual number of complainants, rather than the number of complaints, Dr Koh said that there were three in 2014, compared with five in 2015 and 13 last year.

Though there were calls for AVA to move the chickens to other areas, such as Pulau Ubin, Dr Koh said that placing common chickens there would contaminate the gene pool of the existing red junglefowl population.

AVA will continue to undertake research with academics, experts and other stakeholders to manage the population of free-ranging chickens and other birds, said Dr Koh. “Culling will only be done as the very last resort,” he said.

On the Sin Ming birds, Dr Koh said AVA had initiated a study with the National University of Singapore (NUS) in January 2016 to better understand the ecology and population of selected bird species in Singapore, one of which was free-ranging chickens.

It’s disappointing that the Parliament session cast little light on the issue. With the contradictory messages coming from the authorities, comms need to be cleaned up first before we can make sense of this clucking mess.


Featured image by Pixabay user inmemo. (CC0 1.0)

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