LocationAlhambra , CA United States
This spring brought change and a new surprise to my garden. Alhambra’s brown lawns became green, trees blossomed and some new birds showed up in my neighborhood. They announced themselves one morning in April with a cheery but loud song as the sun came up. The sharp notes usually end in a four note call that some say sounds like “pleased to meet you.” After the song continued for several mornings, I began looking for the source of this new music in my garden. It did not take long before two vibrantly colored birds with punk rocker crests, white cheeks and red whiskers under the eyes flew down to a branch, gave me the once over and sang their distinctive song. They were as curious about me as I was about them. I took their picture, emailed it to a birder friend of mine who found them in one of her books and gave me a name: Pycnonotus jocosus or the red-whiskered bulbul.
Red-whiskered bulbuls have quite a story to tell. They came from India, but are scattered throughout Asia, Africa and even Australia. How did they end up in my backyard? The birds were brought here as pets in the 1960s, but some escaped and established themselves at the Huntington Library and Gardens. Over the last 40 years they have spread throughout the 626 and can now be seen in Alhambra.
The birds were initially seen as a threat to agriculture. The Department of Agriculture tried to eliminate them in the 1970s. Like other programs to eliminate non-native species, it failed and the birds thrived on the exotic shrubs of the San Gabriel Valley. Since we grow houses now and not agriculture, they are no longer seen as a problem in this area.
I talked to Kimball Garrett, Ornithology Collections Manager at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. He told me that whenever he gets a call from the San Gabriel Valley about a strange bird with a loud call, it usually turns out to be the red-whiskered bulbul. Asked if he was concerned about the bird in Los Angeles as a non-native species, Kimball said that he was conflicted. In general, it’s not good to have a non-native species established in an ecosystem, but on the other hand, he was not terribly concerned about Bulbuls and their ecological impact. It is what LA is. If you ask people what tree typifies L.A., most will probably say the palm tree, which is not native to Los Angeles either. Bulbuls are symptomatic of how we have changed the landscape by cobbling together plants and animal species from all over the world.
The red-whiskered bulbul is a songbird and belongs to a group containing over 5000 species. Songbirds originated in Australia over 24 million years ago and then spread around the world by island hopping. Songbirds use a special voice box called a Syrinx that allows some of them to sweep through more notes than a piano keyboard in a tenth of a second. They sing for many reasons, among them marking their territory, looking for a mate or like humans, they simply enjoy singing. Researchers are also exploring how birdsong affects humans, particularly in reducing stress and inducing feelings of happiness.
Many Vietnamese immigrants know well the calming magic the red-whiskered bulbul’s singing brings to the attentive listener. The birds are prized throughout Asia for their song. Nowhere is this more true than in Hue, Vietnam. Walk along the north bank of the Perfume River and you will see many coffee and bird shops, where owners bring their red-whiskered bulbuls in ornate cages for a “bird date.” Sipping cups of ca phe sua nong, a dark, rich and very sweet Vietnamese coffee, the proud owners arrange their cages so that the birds can sing their distinctive song and perhaps learn some new tricks from the other birds. The singing of the red-whiskered bulbuls has been very good for the café business and attracts students, workers and seniors who enjoy the coffee and the uplifting sounds. This is a very civilized way to start the day if you ask me.
Alhambra has always been a city of immigrants. From the early settlers to present day Asians who have found their home here, all have adapted and thrived in their new location. Included in our history of immigration are the Bulbuls, who have brought their Old World song to share with us.
Someday I would like to sit along the Perfume River and listen to the Bulbuls sing. In the meantime, I go to Bahn Mi My Tho, grab a cup of Vietnamese coffee and come back home to sit in my yard and listen to the red-whiskered bulbuls sing. I am a lucky man.
Michael Lawrence is a wannabe detective, ceramicist, wilderness explorer, admirer of rare minerals and long time desert rat. He loves his dan dan noodles spicy with thick noodles.