This 29-year-old plays matchmaker at Jurong Bird Park
Rachel Lee is the species coordinator for straw-headed bulbuls across EAZA-accredited zoological institutes worldwide.
It wouldn’t be too far off from the truth to call Rachel Lee a modern-day cupid.
Tasked with matchmaking, she spends her days combing through the details of her various clients and assessing their compatibility. But her clients don’t go on candlelight dinners, or even kiss.
Instead, they fly and chirp away.
Rachel, 29, is a Junior Avian Keeper at Jurong Bird Park’s breeding facility. There, she specialises in pairing birds of various species to maintain a healthy and genetically diverse population.
Being an avian keeper wasn’t something she set out to be initially, though. She had always been interested in environmental conservation but she started seeing wildlife, particularly birds, in a new light when she went on an exchange programme during university.
Staying with a housemate who kept a green-cheeked conure as a pet allowed her to have one of her first proper interactions with birds.
Since that first interaction, her interest in birds only grew. After returning from her exchange, Rachel got herself a bird of the same breed which she cared for fondly.
However, she was devastated when it flew away one day and never came back. This haunting loss is what left her with the desire to join Jurong Bird Park to learn more about bird husbandry and management.
She then left her role as a nature walk guide to join Jurong Bird Park in 2018, where she was posted to the breeding facility.
At work, Rachel starts off her day by meeting with her team to relay updates on the animals under their care. Then, she heads down to the aviary to do a headcount of the birds.
Following the headcount, she feeds the birds and observes them before cleaning up the aviary.
Rachel shares that having astute observation is essential, as birds which are ill tend to not show symptoms so that they aren’t seen as easy targets in the wild.
“Things to look out for include whether they are keen to feed, their body posture, and whether they are active. We also look out for courtship and nesting behaviours so that we know where to put their nests to increase breeding activities,” she tells Youthopia.
On the occasion that the team has paired two birds based on a set of criteria, Rachel houses them side by side as a way to introduce them.
While a fun process by Rachel’s own admission, it can also be challenging as the birds’ reactions can be unpredictable. This is more so for bigger birds like hornbills which can get aggressive very fast, Rachel shares.
In addition to these everyday tasks in the breeding facility, Rachel is also involved in other behind-the-scenes responsibilities as the appointed species coordinator for the straw-headed bulbul by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) Executive Office.
As a species coordinator, Rachel has access to data on all the individual members of the species across all EAZA members.
Using a unique software, she analyses which birds are compatible and can contribute to sustaining a healthy population based on the database’s information.
“Species coordinators tell the zoos which individuals are paired, after which transfers can be made and the breeding programme can begin,” Rachel shares.
Another reason why it’s important to spread critically endangered species across different areas is to have insurance populations in the event of natural disasters and diseases, she adds.
Since Jurong Bird Park is the only zoological institution which owns and breeds the straw-headed bulbul, Rachel is in charge of starting a breeding programme for them across other EAZA-accredited zoos.
She produced a studbook documenting all the straw-headed bulbul individuals in the zoos and their parentage, allowing her to analyse and produce a plan for the species’ future management.
“As species coordinator, other than just pairing it’s important to share information and knowledge on these birds, so that no matter where they go there will be successful breeding to ensure an insurance population,” Rachel says.
Rachel’s ultimate hope for the programme is to be able to release the chicks of the straw-headed bulbul back into the wild.
There are many challenges that have come alongside her many responsibilities. In the four years since she took on her role as a keeper, Rachel recalls that getting accustomed to the physical labour and working long hours under Singapore’s unforgiving sun were some of her main issues.
She also struggled at the start when it came to learning about caring for the birds, but she turned to resources online and the seniors around her for help.
“All the keepers here have a lot of experience and are very willing to share, they played an important role in teaching me and helping me gain all the experience I needed in terms of breeding and managing the aviaries,” says Rachel.
There were also specific challenges which came with being species coordinator.
Issues such as avian flu outbreaks and the COVID-19 pandemic were also some factors that had set back breeding programmes.
No matter the challenges, Rachel’s job has played a part in shaping how she’s viewed Ex Situ conservation, which is the process of placing an endangered species under human care and releasing them back into the wild once the population can sustain itself.
Rachel reflected that having these birds under human care helps keepers gain insights into the different species as they can be very difficult to observe in the wild.
“I also realised that part of conservation is learning to communicate with other stakeholders like conservation organisations, other zoos and the public,” she adds.
For Rachel, the journey has been nothing short of rewarding.
Going through the cycle of pairing the birds, having them lay eggs in the nests she placed and seeing the chicks grow up gives her a sense of satisfaction.
“You see the effort and the work you put in coming through, so that’s what’s rewarding for me,” she says.
Besides finding fulfilment in her day-to-day work, getting to be a part of the Bird Park’s transition to Bird Paradise is a goal Rachel has had since she first came to the Bird Park. Now, it is something she will soon see to completion.
As part of the rebranding effort by Mandai Wildlife Group, Jurong Bird Park will officially cease operations and relocate to Bird Paradise on Jan 3, 2023.
Being able to take part in the move and experience a brand new beginning in Bird Paradise is something Rachel looks forward to, and hopes others will do as well.
Especially since the new space will consist of eight large free-flight aviaries which will not only provide a better experience for the birds, but also visitors.
“Make your last memories at Jurong Bird Park, and when we are finally open you can come see our birds in their new home. They will no longer be behind a mesh so you’ll have a more interactive experience where you can get an appreciation for wildlife,” she adds.