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May the magpie of happiness return to roost in our trees
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Two Shanghai Wild Bird Society members watch birds through binoculars on Chongming Island. [Shanghai Daily]

Two Shanghai Wild Bird Society members watch birds through binoculars on Chongming Island. [Shanghai Daily] 

Armed with binoculars and a notebook, 32-year-old Gu Ren can spend quiet, almost motionless, hours at his leafy spot at the Botanical Garden in Xuhui District.

The sun is shining, the birds are singing.

Aha! He's spotted a pica pica, otherwise known as the magpie, the Chinese bird of happiness that once roosted in Shanghai. It disappeared for many years, but birdwatchers have spotted it again in parks.

It's a sign of Shanghai's greening and the successful creation of parks, botanical gardens and leafy oases that beckon our fine feathered friends back to a more environmentally friendly concrete jungle.

Once Shanghai was bird-friendly. But in the 1950s, magpies, sparrows and other birds were killed in the nationwide Four Pests Campaign (rats, mosquitoes, flies and sparrows). Urban expansion destroyed birds' habitat and they were further repelled air pollution and heavy use of pesticides to kill the insects they fed on.

A survey of birds in 1997-99 found only eight magpies and they were on Chongming Island (County). By extrapolation, they figured there might only be around 200 magpies.

There hasn't been a recent survey, but birdwatchers like Gu and environmentalists say they are slowly returning, along with many other species.

Magpies again have been spotted in suburbs in Fengxian, Qingpu, Baoshan and Jiading districts, according to Professor Tang Sixian, an ornithologist in the biology department of East China Normal University. He reported last year that birds were returning in small numbers.

Today Shanghai is believed to have 137 bird species, mostly migratory birds stopping over, according to Yuan Xiao, a senior engineer at the Shanghai Wildlife Protection and Management Center. His findings are based on monthly bird surveys conducted in 18 parks since 2006.

A report published in 1993 identified 370 species sighted since the 19th century.

"Most people don't believe there are wild birds, except sparrows, in Shanghai," says birdwatcher Gu, an IT professional. "But wild birds do exist here, not far from us."

Occasionally people stop and star at birdwatcher Gu, they ask him what he's doing and he patiently explains and sometimes hands over his binoculars.

"They're thrilled when they see what I see," he says.

The mischievous magpie, a member of the crow family, is the bird of good luck and happiness in China. It is said to be good luck for a family if a magpie nests near a house, and good luck to see the house magpie fly from its nest.

The house magpie's chatter announces the coming of guests. And there's a famous love story in which celestial magpies form a bridge of their wings once a year to unite the lovers Niu Lang and Zhi Nu.

Magpies were common in Shanghai from the 1920s through the 1950s.

They flocked together in Xujiahui, Jing'an Park and along Yueyang Road where they sought out tall trees with many branches and space to fly.

So sightings of magpies and other birds are cause for celebration by the Landscaping Administration Bureau.

Last April, the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Association launched a three-year Search for Magpies program at the 27th Bird-loving Week. It encourages residents to search for magpies, learn about them, provide nest-building materials and provide a happy home.

The program has generated a lot of interest, but birdwatcher Gu started his observation much earlier. He received binoculars as a gift in 2003, searched online for what to do with the magnifiers and came across birdwatching. At first he was too clumsy and not quick enough to catch the birds.

He was hooked when he spotted a Chinese light-vented bulbul (turdus merula) in his own community. He matched it with the bird online.

Now Gu spends most of his spare time watching birds in city parks or suburbs, poring over pictorial bird guides and talking shop with other bird lovers.

In 2004, Gu and friends founded the Shanghai Wild Bird Society.

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