PhD Research Abroad: Birds in Rice Fields of the Philippines


PhD student Richard Smedley shares some thoughts on studying overseas and his work with rice farmers in the Philippines.

“If you are from England, and they don’t grow rice, why bother?”

I have to admit, it was a good question, though not one I was expecting. After every presentation I make, I expect a number of questions that are always asked, but this one took me completely by surprise. It’s November 2013 and I have just given a brief overview of my research to an international group of participants of an Ecological Pest Management course at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Because one of my supervisors is running the course, I had been asked to present my work on birds in rice fields, it was the first time birds had been included in the course, but I was also taking part in the course, student and teacher. But how do I answer the question? Why, indeed, had I bothered? I think to answer that, I have to go back a few more years…

After a very busy and mobile undergraduate degree (4 years, 3 University Campuses, 2 undergrads, BSc and FdSc, and an industrial placement year in South Africa) I had been awarded a place at the University of Reading to do an MSc in Wildlife Management and Conservation. I started in 2010 and quickly found myself engrossed in a range of wildlife that I had not worked with before. I have always loved birds after having them in the l house as I grew up, but the MSc showed me other aspects of wildlife and ecology that I had not looked into before. I was lucky enough that I was able to work with a PhD Student on Little Owls in the UK for my MSc thesis, and it was whilst working on this that a PhD became available. The description was an investigation of avian biodiversity within rice fields of South East Asia, based in the Philippines. The background was a little thin and further reading came up short. Nothing had been done before, this was a completely blank canvas. When I got the offer I jumped at it, and 5 short months later at the beginning of 2012 found myself getting off a 14 hour flight in Manila, the Philippines.

It wasn’t long before I really started to understand why no one had conducted work on birds in the Philippines before. The local attitude is “All birds eat rice” and “If it flaps, scare it away”, information which has been passed down from farmer-to-farmer. Within a few days of my arrival, I knew that this was incorrect. I saw swallows hunting over the canopy, I saw rails and bitterns passing through the crops and I saw egrets as they made their way through the wetlands, hunting as they went. These birds don’t eat rice yet so much effort is made, money spent and resources used to scare them away. I produced my proposals and have been working on them ever since.

Rice fields near Santiago City, Philippines. Photo by Nigel Goodman and used under Creative Commons license

Rice fields near Santiago City, Philippines. Photo by Nigel Goodman and used under Creative Commons license

Being in a very small group of people working on birds in the Philippines, and the only one working on birds in rice fields, I have also had the good fortune to work on a number of different projects with a number people and different organizations. I am fortunate that IRRI decided that they wanted to highlight the birds in rice fields in a photo exhibition. Bird watching in the Philippines is only really done by a small number of individuals but photography, specifically bird photography, is very popular. Two local amateur photographers have been capturing photographs of bird from the IRRI farm for years and in April 2013, produced an exhibition held at the rice museum at IRRI. Fifty-two species are shown in glorious large prints for the public to come and view for free. During the opening ceremony I heard many mentioning that they were unaware that so many birds lived in rice fields, again showing there is a need for my work. From this exhibition, a small number of magazine journals have been produced, including one from myself, which has been sent to all of the rice research centres around the world. A calendar has also been produced, which I had an input in, with a different bird picture each month. I have also collaborated with Birdlife International and Haribon, a local NGO, along with others to produce a report on the state of birds in the Philippines, hopefully going to print in 2014 and available online from Birdlife International. I have given a number of presentations to IRRI with regards to birds that can be found in rice fields, and also presented some of my work at the 23rd Annual Waterbird Conference in Wilhelmshaven, Germany, in September 2013.

Wood sandpiper, a common passage migrant in Richard's study fields. Photo by Ian White, used under Creative Commons license

Wood sandpiper, a common passage migrant in Richard’s study fields. Photo by Ian White, used under Creative Commons license

All this is why, in November, I find myself at the front of the class, explaining this to a group of people from all over Asia that can be divided into two groups: ones who have never considered birds in their rice fields before, and those that just want to scare all of them away. I mention the birds seen in the rice fields at my research sites, including my favourite statistic that I have seen over 70 species of bird in rice fields and only 4 of them actually eat rice. I know what the birds eat from literature and previous experience and I use this to try and demonstrate that the general view is incorrect. I spend time explaining about different guilds of birds and beak formation to demonstrate my point. I briefly mention techniques that can be used to scare birds, if they wish to spend the money, but finish by asking if it is really necessary. As I had mentioned, most birds are there for the insects or for the shelter, some birds may even be providing a service to the farmers by managing invertebrate pests and those are the ones you want to keep and encourage to use the fields. I conclude by saying that though the work is in its early phases, we need to know these things before we can suitably manage rice fields. I throw it open to questions and get a few of the common ones. But then comes the question:

“If you are from England, and they don’t grow rice, why bother?”

…and my mind goes blank. I can’t explain everything fully; it would just take too long. I take a moment, a deep breath, get my thoughts in order and then begin:

“I believe that it is everyone’s responsibility to be concerned with biodiversity and concerned with how we have an impact on the wildlife around us. History from the UK has shown that without taking a moment to think about this, we can spend many decades afterwards trying to recover something which might never have been lost if someone had given it some thought. If we can understand the basics and work with avian biodiversity, we can ensure the bird’s survival for many more generations to enjoy, and can also identify those species that could actually help in increasing rice yield.”

Greater Painted Snipe. Photo by Davis Kwan, creative commons license

Greater Painted Snipe. Photo by Davis Kwan, creative commons license

I look at the person who has asked the question, she seems to have understood and my answer seems to have given her, and everyone else in the room, something to think about. I thank them again and sit down. I am excited to report that a number of those people on the course have indeed gone back to their countries and started to look at the birds. I get e-mails from them all the time, sometimes with questions about birds, often they are excited as they have seen something new and want to share it. Some of the participants have even started sharing the knowledge with others. Hopefully, overtime, we can change the dogma about birds in rice fields and use our knowledge to aid farmers in rice production. Me? I’m just happy to be here to help and hopefully start the ball rolling for many others to study this hugely diverse subject in the future.

About Chris Foster

I am a Teaching Associate and PhD student in the School of Biological Sciences. My main interests are in birds and insects, but in the good old-fashioned spirit of natural history I try to keep an open mind and open eyes.
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