Birds of Many Feathers

By Neil Lawrence 27 November 2013

Much is made of the fact that Myanmar is a multi-ethnic nation of 135 “national races.” But this cultural diversity barely begins to compare with the rich variety of plant and animal species that also call this country home.

“Dancing with Wings,” a book that describes itself as a “portfolio of birds in Myanmar,” introduces just a small handful of the avian species that live here. According to Avibase, an authoritative online database of birds from around the world, Myanmar has a total of 1,081 bird species, or roughly 10 percent of all known species.

But what it lacks in exhaustiveness, “Dancing with Wings” more than makes up for in the obvious delight that its author, Kyaw Myo Naing, takes in documenting some of Myanmar’s feathered treasures. This is the work of someone who knows the country well, and who wants others to appreciate its often unseen riches.

Most of the birds included here still have healthy populations in Myanmar, although several—the spot-billed pelican, the black-headed ibis, the painted stork and the oriental darter—are listed as near-endangered. Only one, the green peafowl (spotted at the Hlawga National Park, in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township), is considered endangered.

This is comforting, because it means that despite all its other problems, Myanmar is still a place where our fellow creatures can cohabit with us in relative peace. But as Daw Aung San SuuKyi writes in her foreword, this is not something that can be taken for granted: “We must preserve the health and beauty of our environment … to ensure that our Earth is a safe haven for our children and grandchildren and our skies a pure firmament for our birds.”

Kyaw Myo Naing is himself almost as intriguing as his subjects. Well-known among nature photographers in Myanmar for the quality of his work, he is a dedicated amateur rather than a professional. Prior to his retirement in 2005, he had a very different occupation, as a general in the country’s armed forces.

This past is referred to in a brief biographical note, where it is stated that he joined the military in 1967, at the age of 22. “While serving in the army, he liked hunting and aimed mostly for moving targets,” it adds, rather darkly.

This isn’t what you expect to read in a book about birds, but it is a useful reminder that conflict has been a large part of this country’s experience for far too long. Perhaps as Myanmar moves toward a more peaceful future, the true value of its diversity—human and natural—will become much easier for all to appreciate.

This story was first published in the November 2013 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.