Pham Thuy Dung

Raising songbirds is a popular hobby in Vietnam. We meet some bird-enthusiasts in the capital

From high in a green tree, the twitters of birds reach my ears. I crane my neck, wishing to retrieve that breath of nature but hear only traffic and sirens. Sometimes I wonder: Does a caged bird sing differently than a free one?

As I watch slow drops of coffee descend from the filter and listen to birds sing beside Thien Quang Lake, I understand why some people spend hours “communicating” with birds. The more you listen to birdsong, the more enthralled you become. Raising birds is not just a hobby but a relationship. Bird-lovers will only go to bed after having covered their bird’s cage with a blanket.

A Vietnamese saying states: “Raising birds builds your will.” My friend’s uncle went away on business, asking my friend to care for his birds. After a week of feeding them, what was duty turned to love. This happened due to a bird’s beak. One morning, my friend saw a bird tap its beak against a pot of water and was enchanted by its golden colour. He fell in love. eventually, his courtyard was full of birds. He says that a love of birds is a love of details.

Last time I visited the bird market on Hoang Hoa Tham Street, I ran into an acquaintance who regaled me with stories about birds. He spent hourssitting on Ho Dac Di Street with a crowd of nightingale-lovers. I asked him how to choose a bird. He answered with passion: “To select a bird, pay attention to its salient features, solid gait and orderly hopping. Nightingales have bright eyes, soft feathers and big legs; white-eyes have thin beaks, a swelling pharynx, protruding eyes, broad forehead and curved back; and red whiskered bulbuls have puffed chests, closed beaks, wide mouths, a big pharynx, sagging wings and hunched backs…Some mutated birds such as albino red whiskered bulbuls, yellow white-eyes with one black and one white legs, or red whiskered bulbuls that are white from head to chest and have red rings and yellow feet bring good luck!” He collected white-eyes, white rumped shamas, Seychelles magpies, fighter bulbuls and sag-naped nightingales, among others. He even traveled to Can Cau (Lao Cai) to hunt for nightingales
that could sing fiercely and repeatedly.

The wintry chill eased as the sun peeped out. My friend asked me to pick up a bird cage with him. We traveled to Vac Village as grey clouds dissolved overhead. He told me that he used to order cages from China, but preferred local ones. The cage is important for domesticated birds. They suffer from captivity, so need a safe and pleasant cage. Woods like mazanita, madrona, eucalyptus, etc. are used, but the most popular material is old bamboo. Bird-enthusiasts also pay a lot of attention to water pots. A set comprises five pots with fine carvings to serve as a lively focus for the cage’s monotonous bars. The location and direction of the cage requires careful thought. It should back onto a calm place so that the bird is not stressed. The front view must inspire the bird to sing. People who raise birds spend a lot of time feeding and training them. My friend’s son also raises birds, and shares the following tips: “Baby locusts are consumed by white-eyes and older locusts by red whiskered bulbuls. Prepare warm water for it to drink in the winter, keep off the wind. Move your bird to another cage and give it a bath.”

When a bird sings beautifully its owner feels a sense of achievement. I spoke to members of various bird-
keeping clubs, including the Hale, Youths, Nguyen Phong Sac White-eyes and Tran Huu Tuoc White-eyes clubs. They all agreed: To sing beautifully, a bird must be able to produce long clear notes and unexpected notes. They compared birdsong to jazz or rhythmic chèo melodies. Every time a bird-lover enters his bird in a birdsong contest, he is touched by the sound of its familiar voice joining other birds’ voices in harmony. Some birds have bell-like voices while others have low, solid voices. A purple feathered bird lengthens its voice while a grey white one hits full trills. each voice is unique.

I heard caged birds sing more moderately and harmoniously than their wild or counterparts. I decided that the comparison didn’t matter. Although domesticated birds lack their wild nature, they continue to fascinate people. The song of a domesticated bird brought me warmth and peace of mind on a grey winter’s day.