Tuesday 24 June 2014

Bird study group gets $200,000 from S'pore donor

By David Ee, The Straits Times, 23 Jun 2014

A GROUP of volunteers pioneering the study of bird behaviour in Singapore has received a surprise donation of $200,000 from a member of the public who wishes to stay anonymous.

The Bird Ecology Study Group, whose decade-old blog documenting the minutiae of local bird habits is one of the 10 most visited bird blogs in the world, received the money in April from a Singaporean woman in her 50s.

The avid bird-watcher wanted to contribute towards research that goes beyond simply bird-watching, said former Nature Society Singapore president Wee Yeow Chin, 77. The group's founder, he single-handedly runs the blog, with input from a few hundred contributors.

"After a while, bird-watching is just more of the same thing," said Dr Wee, a retired botanist who got hooked on studying birds in 2005. "She wanted to make a contribution to science. There's so much about our local birds to learn about that most Singaporeans don't know."

With the donor's permission, Dr Wee - who is also an honorary curator at the upcoming Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum - has given the donation to the museum, to hire a full-time avian curator-cum-researcher.

The money will be placed in an endowment fund dedicated to the study of birds, said the museum's new head, Professor Peter Ng.

Once donations to the fund reach about $800,000, interest from it will be sufficient to hire someone.

The museum, which will open early next year, aims to become a "powerhouse for research", said Prof Ng. He hopes that other passionate champions like Dr Wee will attract donations to the museum in their respective fields of study, be it birds, butterflies, mammals or fish.

It is already raising funds to hire a butterfly researcher, with the help of retired Malaysian entrepreneur T.H. Tan.

An endowment fund for each field ensures the money can be used only for it, Prof Ng said, even if the museum changes tack.

"As the years go on, one generation after another, the research expertise and knowledge will grow and grow. After many decades, we will become very strong."

The Bird Ecology Study Group, whose website has attracted nearly five million visits in total, compiled an online archive last year, listing over 300 species of plants and trees, and the birds which frequent them. It hopes planners will use the archive to guide them. And if the museum succeeds in hiring a bird researcher, Dr Wee will know that its work will continue, even if he isn't running the show.

"I've always been worried about how long my work will last," he said.

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