Science Talk

The javan mynah: Today's pest, tomorrow's food?

If we are to live in harmony with the javan mynah, by the laws of nature, it may well mean having to eat them some day.
If we are to live in harmony with the javan mynah, by the laws of nature, it may well mean having to eat them some day. PHOTO: LIM KIM SENG

Common mynahs are listed as the third-most-invasive species in the world by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

But in Singapore, they are not the mynahs that have gained notoriety for fouling cars, raiding food centres and turning trees into cacophonous loudspeakers, day and night.

Such pranks are the work of their cousins, the javan mynahs, which are thought to have been introduced here as pets in the 1920s.

The javan mynah is not in IUCN's top-100 list of invasive species, but it has pushed the common mynah right out of Singaporeans' collective consciousness.

A town council once applied a spicy gel on tree branches in a bid to shoo off the noisy birds, but the birds simply put leaves and twigs on top of the gel and got on with life.

In 2012, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority sent a hawk to chase them away from Orchard Road, but the predator beat a hasty retreat when it came up against the sheer number of mynahs.

More recent anti-mynah tactics have included a foul-smelling herb-based gel from Japan, and a chemical fog containing methylated soya bean oil and grape extract that causes a burning sensation in the mynah's faces.

But even if these succeed in repelling the mynahs, the birds are not about to retreat into the jungle.

Javan mynahs are urban creatures. They are only going to move to another housing estate and irritate people there.

The mynahs are actually symptoms of a deeper problem.

Maybe mynahs look cleaner and more graceful. Maybe they don't bite. Maybe they sing, if badly.

But they are not that different from the much-detested rats and cockroaches when it comes to their most important job - scavenging.

When you see a cockroach, your first thought is to kill it. But what has it done to deserve this?

It has no intention of harming humans. Its long sensitive feelers and lightning speed give it the admirable environmental adaptation to seek out every last morsel of food for its own rightful survival.

But the health hazard from such pests is ultimately caused by rubbish generated by humans.

Waste - especially when left in the open - creates unhygienic conditions that not only attract mynahs, rats and cockroaches but also serve as a delicious stew for germs to proliferate.

Nature's ecological machinery is simply adapting to urban circumstances, in which humans and their dreaded pests are part and parcel of the same interconnected network of species that eat, compete with or get eaten by one another.

Ever since humans invented agriculture and industry, they have progressively ensconced themselves in the perceived safety and comfort of towns and cities, and created an illusion of themselves as superior beings.

As a result, their relationship with nature is on the rocks.

People waste food and other natural resources. Then they spend more money and rack their brains trying to get rid of the animals that nature sends to clean up the leftovers.

There is another problem too.

Natural laws dictate that whenever a population is nearly killed off, the remaining pool of strong survivors will rebound on the surplus food now available.

This is why pest control is an interminable struggle - mynahs continue to annoy people, the rats are back in Bukit Batok, and the cockroach never dies.

Singapore's population of javan mynahs was estimated recently to be more than 100,000. But this is tiny compared with the human population of more than 5.5 million.

People are far worse than mynahs when it comes to disturbing the peace.

If Singaporeans want a long-term solution, they must change their mindset.

Popular thinking continues to focus on how to defeat the mynahs, rather than how to live in harmony with them.

This goes beyond tolerating them, even beyond appreciating them as beautiful and resourceful animals.

Living in harmony, by the laws of nature, may mean eating them.

It would result in a very different ecological equation - one in which people gain energy from mynahs instead of wasting it on them.

It would fill our stomachs with protein while keeping a perpetual check on mynah numbers, and might even contribute to the food industry.

But our agro-industrial culture has constricted our taste to a sterile regimen of monocultured food crops and domesticated meat.

Most people would cringe at the thought of mynah soup, though it might just work better than irritating them with gels or trying to smoke them out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 22, 2016, with the headline 'The javan mynah: Today's pest, tomorrow's food?'. Print Edition | Subscribe