Bird Wins Reprieve in Battle of the Bulbul

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since it took up residency in the Huntington Library’s Botanical Gardens 18 years ago, the red-whiskered bulbul is temporarily safe from government officials determined to eliminate it.

The decorative little bird’s life has been spared in a showdown between the gardens director and state and county agents who had been shooting to kill on government orders.

Red-whiskered bulbuls, found in the United States only at Huntington Botanical Gardens and in Florida, are on the state’s “A-Pest” list, a designation that targets them for eradication. They qualify because they are not a native bird and are a fruit-eating species considered a threat to agriculture.


But now the birds have defenders who argue that bulbuls have not lived up to their menacing reputation and should be allowed to live happily in the confined habitat they chose in 1968.

Huntington Director Robert Middlekauff has forbidden officials of the state Department of Food and Agriculture to shoot the birds on Huntington property, and the state agency is conducting a re-evaluation to determine how dangerous the bulbul really is. “The whole thing’s on hold,” said senior agriculture department biologist Jerry Clark, referring to the eradication program.

President Has Doubts

Birders who will participate in the Pasadena Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count Monday are cheered by the development; in previous counts, they knew their reports of the bird’s existence were setting it up for the kill because it is on the A-Pest list.

But there is disagreement about the bird’s fate even within the Pasadena Audubon Society, where President Robert Neuwirth, who has led the count for the past seven years, has reservations about whether the bird should be spared.

Since they were first sighted in 1968, red-whiskered bulbuls have never ventured far from the Botanical Gardens in San Marino, although some have been seen a few miles away at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia.

They are indigenous to China and Southeast Asia and thrive in warm climates on exotic fruits and insects. Ornithologists theorize that they have been carried or shipped from other countries and that those living in the wild probably are escapees from private aviaries.


The bulbuls are small, crested birds, about seven inches long, with red patches under their eyes and on their tails, brownish coats and white breasts. Their song has been described as both melodic and raucous.

Still on the List

Although the agriculture department is re-examining the problem posed by the bulbul, Clark said the agency is still “a long way” from taking the bird off the list of species the state wants eliminated.

Middlekauff has demanded that the state produce evidence of the bulbul’s destructiveness before allowing eradication of the birds to resume.

“They haven’t provided evidence, and I certainly don’t want people walking around with guns,” Middlekauff said.

State and county officials have been using pellet guns to kill the birds on orders from the state Department of Food and Agriculture and the Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner.

‘Carrying Out Instructions’

“Visually, it’s like we’re walking around with submachine guns,” said Claire Miller, an agricultural biologist for the state, who went on an early-morning bulbul shoot last spring. “Any firearm looks dangerous, but netting and trapping haven’t proven effective.”

“We’re just carrying out instructions,” said Richard Wightman, supervising agricultural inspector for the county who has headed bulbul eradication since the birds were first discovered. “It’s hard to convince certain birders that what we’re doing is right. But when a species is on the A-Pest list we have an obligation to eradicate it.

“In 1968 five bulbuls were sighted in the Huntington Gardens, five were shot, and we thought the problem was over. We’ve been working on this pretty consistently for the better part of 20 years.”

In that period, Wightman said, 168 bulbuls have been exterminated.

“It’s hard to say what constitutes a real problem,” he said. “Nobody’s said they have to hit a certain number, but I’d say if there were 1,000 red-whiskered bulbuls, we’d get very concerned. In the meantime, we take pride in what we’ve done and if the state wants to change the designation it means we’ve done all that work for nothing.”

High Count of 22

Throughout the 1970s there were never more than eight red-whiskered bulbuls a year counted in both the Huntington Botanical Gardens and the arboretum. There were 20 in 1982, eight in 1983, and an all-time high of 22 in 1984.

The handful of women doing the Huntington Gardens Christmas count are solidly on Middlekauff’s side, insisting that in 18 years of scrutiny they have seen no evidence that the bird has significantly proliferated or harmed local crops. They argue that bulbuls nest just once a year, usually hatching one egg, and their beaks cannot penetrate the tough skins of citrus fruits or avocados.

Clark said bulbuls are not being eradicated in Dade County, Fla., their only other known habitat in the United States, because crop damage has not been severe.

The counters have even discussed concealing some of their sightings in the hope of preserving the bulbul. “But we’re too proud of whatever we see to alter our figures,” said Lillian Swift, one of the regulars.

Audubon President Neuwirth and Mickey Long, naturalist at the Eaton Canyon Nature Center and leader of this year’s Christmas count, say the issue is larger than one exotic bird species.

“We have to be concerned about introduced species taking the ecological space of our natives,” Neuwirth said, citing the starling as one bird that destroys crops and feedlots, takes over other birds’ nests and has eradicated entire species of native birds.

Some ornithologists also think the bulbuls should be killed.

“I think if it has a remote potential for being destructive it should be eliminated,” said Gene Cardiff, curator of natural history at San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands and a nationally recognized ornithologist. “Birds can behave differently in another environment, and I just feel it is not worth the risk.”

Kimball Garrett, ornithology collection manager for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, agreed.

“I sincerely doubt if bulbuls could exist to any great extent in our native habitat--they need the kind of exotic fruit that only grows in places like the Huntington and the Arboretum,” he said. “But I just don’t like the idea of introduced birds because of all the potential harm ecologically.”