By: Katie Roberts; photography by Michael Bernabe
Most of us take the sound of birds for granted – just another background noise as we go about our day-to-day activities. For Dr Luis Carlos Neves, assistant director of Jurong Bird Park’s avian department, however, birds are his life’s work. Expat Living went behind the scenes with the engaging Portuguese vet to find out more about his job and the internationally renowned tourist attraction and conservation centre.
Dr Luis Carlos Neves feeds a boisterous, three-week-old blue-eyed cockatoo through a syringe in Jurong Bird Park’s Breeding and Conservation Centre. Akin to a hospital nursery, with progress charts and hygiene controls, the room also has a large glass window that visitors can peer through. It allows the public to watch how this captivity-bred chick, native to the Bismarck Archipelago, is being hand-reared.
“People say the chicks are ugly, but I like them all,” says Luis, stroking its feathers like a baby. He explains that this tender loving care is part of the Park’s commitment to maintaining sustainable bird populations. “We have a hundred pairs of endangered parrots breeding in a special closed aviary just behind here,” he says.
As the Park’s assistant director, Luis’s love of birds clearly goes deep; like many of the keepers here, his job is more a vocation than an occupation. Born and raised in Portugal, he trained as an avian and reptile vet and clinical pathologist. He has been working at the Bird Park for two years, following a stint at the Singapore Zoo.
“I always loved birds and always wanted to be a vet. But I never thought I’d be working in this place; it’s one of the largest parks of its kind in the world, and managing the whole collection is a dream come true,” he says.
Birds have clearly been a life-long obsession. With a twinkle in his eye, Luis explains the mini-bird park he had as a child. “By the time I went to university I had about 80 birds in my garden at home. I started with quails and doves, and as I grew older acquired budgerigars and cockatiels. I think my mother tolerated it because I was an only child!”
The Park is the largest in Asia, and with 800,000 visitors a year – many of them international – it’s a clear favourite amongst Singapore’s tourist attractions. “The visiting public are as important as the birds, and maintaining the quality of the exhibits and visitor experience is essential,” he says.
“There are few bird-only parks left in the world, and at 20 hectares we are one of the largest. Sixteen keepers manage the more than 400 species of birds from all over the world. These include penguins from Antarctica and snowy owls from the North Pole, but we specialise in tropical birds from Southeast Asia.”
Running hand-in-hand with the public exhibits and fun shows is the breeding and conservation programme. “A major role of zoos nowadays is to maintain a sustainable population of species. This contributes to their conservation, increases the genetic diversity of our bird populations and preserves adequate numbers of birds to breed and exchange with other zoos,” he says.
Luis has poured boundless energy and resources into the Park’s successful programmes. “We’re getting good results from our focus on breeding regional species under threat,” he says. “Only a hundred Bali mynahs (a type of starling) are left in the wild, but the Bird Park has successfully bred five chicks since January.”
After a two-year breeding programme, ten Luzon bleeding-heart pigeon progeny are expected to be sent back to the Philippines and released on Polillo Island soon. This threatened species is declining due to deforestation and the illegal pet trade.
The Park is a designated aviation rescue centre, too; confiscated or donated birds end up here. “Someone will buy a big bird like a macaw and find it too noisy, demanding and distracting, so they bring it to us. Native species can be released back into the wild, but we keep exotics, or organise an exchange with other zoos, including ones in San Diego, the Bronx and Berlin,” he says.
Of the eight rooms in the breeding centre, the quietest are the temperature- and humidity-controlled incubation rooms. The noisiest, on the other hand, are the weaning rooms, where birds of different species learn how to socialise with one another. In one room, young flamingos strut their stuff.
In another, a dozen four-month-old parrots, including a blue-eyed cockatoo, a palm cockatoo and a hyacinth macaw, cavort and squawk noisily in individual cages.
“The birds are here to socialise, and doing it at this early age helps with their development. We are not rearing pets here,” says Luis. “They are captivity-bred wild birds, and at this age learning how to be native parrots.” He also explains that research has shown cockatoos to be as intelligent as four-year-old children. “They have a sense of self, can solve equivalent puzzles, can recognise difference, can mimic, and quickly learn how to get attention,” he says.
And what is Luis’s favourite bird? “I’m fond of penguins – and, as a group, parrots are one of my favourites. They’re intelligent and each species has very individual characters and personalities. Macaws are like independent cats, whereas cockatoos resemble dogs – they’re needy, they scream for attention, are demanding and, like most of the larger species of parrot, can live into their 70s. Before you consider a parrot as a pet, remember they are a lifetime commitment, much more so than a dog. A parrot is with you for the rest of your life.”
•At nine stories high, Jurong Bird Park is home to one of the world’s largest walk-in flight aviaries, Lory Loft. This is a favourite spot to feed 15 species of colourful, gregarious lories. Check out our experience inside the Loft here!
•The Park’s 30-metre waterfall is the world’s tallest man-made waterfall in a walk-in aviary, and was visited by Queen Elizabeth II in 1972.
•In the Breeding and Conservation Centre, a monitor shows a live feed of activity from the nests in the breeding area (which is not accessible to the public).
•3-Day Bird Quest Camp (4 to 6 June) is an up-close encounter with our feathered friends that offers hands-on bird-keeping experiences, reveals the secrets of nest-making and includes lessons in feathers and flight.
•At the Junior Avian Keeper workshop on 11 June, learn what keepers do and find out how birds are kept in the best of health – but be prepared to get dirty and rough it!
•Feeding sessions and live shows are all open to the public. Book for guided tours and behind-the-scenes sessions.