This bilingual book on Taiwan’s birds is excellent for several reasons. Two of them, however, stand out. First, whenever a species is discussed, a captioned color photo of one of its members appears without fail on exactly the same page. Second, it contains a marvelous account of the history of bird conservation on the island — how matters progressed from casual but widespread netting, both for the pot and for the sale of caged specimens, to government-supported attempts at conservation.
Taiwan is a place where Western views are gradually replacing traditional Chinese ones. The traditional Taiwanese view of birds was that they were useful to eke out a sparse diet, and nice to have about the house for free musical entertainment. The modern, originally Western, view is that, despite our extensive dependence on captive animals for food, wild ones should be left free to do as they please, with the elimination of entire species being perceived as a very bad thing indeed.
Before reading this book I’d found guides to Taiwan’s birds in English a problem. One, The Complete Guide to Birds in Taiwan, for example, lists a mere 50 species, whereas the Birdwatcher’s Guide to the Taipei Region describes and illustrates 82. The truth is there are over 450 species found here, and The Swallows’ Return recommends A Birder’s Guide to Taiwan by Dave Sargent, published in 1998, complete with a checklist.
Kate Rogers begins by describing a bird-watching trip to Wulai, close to Taipei. As Rogers and her husband Derrick Wilby inspect the premises of a presumed bird trapper, one central issue immediately becomes clear. It’s illegal to trap wild birds in Taiwan, but small shops selling them are ubiquitous nonetheless. Law-enforcement, in other words, is of crucial importance.
From their house in the hills of Takeng (大坑), just outside Taichung, the couple is next described as driving to Anmashan (鞍馬山) in search of Swinhoe’s Pheasant, near-threatened globally, as well as the Taiwan Whistling Thrush and the Taiwan Hill Partridge. In a similarly precarious position is the Mikado Pheasant, pictured on Taiwan’s NT$1,000 bill. The Mikado is unique to Taiwan, and its appearance on the bank note is a sign of official conservation perspectives, even though Rogers mentions finding endless Internet sites describing Taiwan as “the worst importer of wild animal parts in Asia.”
Even so, things have improved hugely since the 1970s. In an exceptionally fascinating chapter entitled “Barbecued Brown Shrike,” Rogers describes the almost single-handed efforts of John Wu (吳森雄), author of the first comprehensive Chinese-language field guide to the birds of Taiwan, to change government policy on bird protection.
Rogers and Wilby met him in 2003 at the October gathering of bird-watchers in Kenting to observe the large raptors — Oriental Honey Buzzards, Grey-faced Buzzard Eagles, Chinese Goshawks — that congregate there, pausing to rest on their long migration south. The number of enthusiasts present are proof of changing attitudes, watching “large ‘kettles’ of raptors rising and swirling among massive cumulus clouds hanging over the glittering sea.”
After visiting the New York State branch of the Audubon Society in the US, Wu was made aware of the Taiwanese habit of barbecuing the Brown Shrike, as well as the capturing and exporting at that time of thousands of Grey-faced Buzzard Eagles a year, together with many other large-sized raptor species, to Japan. Eagles represented prosperity to the Japanese, he was told, and between 1976 and 1977 a staggering 60,000 Grey-faced Buzzard Eagles alone were captured and exported north to be slaughtered and stuffed.