Birds of a feather

Updated: 2011-04-29 11:47

By Liu Lu (China Daily European Weekly)

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Birds of a feather

The birdmen of Beijing take their pets to the park and hang

their cages on low-hanging branches. Wang Chun / for China Daily

The birdmen of Beijing are one of the capital's iconic cultural features

Walking the dog is a normal scene anywhere in the world but when was the last time you took the bird for a stroll? In China, men are famous for walking their pet birds in the early morning. Men, both young and old (but mostly old) walk while gently swinging the birdcages, which are covered with white or black cloth.

After arriving at a park or a pretty street garden, they stop to uncover the cloth and hang up their various ornate bamboo birdcages to the lower branches of a tree.

Their birds hop and chirp inside their cages. Sitting below, their owners spark up conversation with friends, perform taijiquan exercises, which are similar to taiqi, play cards or take on a friend in Chinese chess. This is a typical scene not only in Beijing but also in cities across the nation.

The hobby of walking pet birds has been popular in China since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and this old tradition continues with many people still taking pleasure from this simple outdoor activity.

"This simple pastime brings fun to people living in an age full of competition and pressure," says 36-year-old Beijinger Su Nan, a newspaper editor.

Su says it is believed that the Chinese were the first to raise colorful varieties of birds as pets and to his knowledge only the Chinese have the hobby of walking birds.

Despite his relatively young age, Su is very experienced in keeping songbirds. He started raising pet birds with his father since he was a boy.

"Bird lovers believe that birds should not be cooped up indoors," he says. "If the owner won't take their caged companions out for a stroll, the bird will become lonely and depressed, which will reduce their will to sing."

Su says taking a bird for a walk is the best way to keep it healthy and vigorous.

"When the birdmen slightly swing the bird cages on the way to and from parks," he says, "the bird has to grip the perch tighter, then its feathers get tighter and smoother. If you don't allow it to have such exercise, its feathers are easily shed."

"The outing is also a good workout for the bird keepers themselves and offers them a chance to get to know people with the same interests."

Su says bird lovers rendezvous daily at certain places with a lot of trees to provide their winged pets with a more natural environment and also give their bird the opportunity to show off their singing skills. Bird keepers will also compare their pets and exchange care tips.

"The easiest way for a bird to learn how to tweet beautifully is to listen to the pleasant chirps of other birds," Su says.

He says a smart songbird breeder will always place his bird next to a bird of the same species in an effort to compare voices.

However, some species of birds are better singers than others, particularly the songbirds, of which there are more than 4000 species around the world.

"Thrush, lark and titmouse are the best choices for a man to take outdoors," says Old Zhang, 52, a bird vendor in a pet market in Beijing.

After running the business for almost eight years, Zhang knows his avian varieties and their different market potential.

Birds in Zhang's shop are sold in various colors and sizes and range from a tiny canary to a large colorful parrot. Songbirds are the most highly prized.

"Songbirds are unlike the typical ornamental birds, such as budgerigar. Whether a songbird is good or not is decided by their song quality, not feather color," Zhang explains.

He says there is a great price disparity between same kinds of songbirds.

For instance, a normal thrush or lurk costs around 100 yuan (10.5 euros) in his shop, but birds with better throats can cost more than 500 yuan, or even thousands.

As an experienced bird breeder, Zhang says birds also have different characters, just like humans.

"Clever songbirds learn quickly how to sing eloquent phrases in beautiful tunes," he says.

"Some are stupid and can only chirp a few tuneless songs. Some birds are shy and rarely sing. Some are so noisy and sing for hours without a break."

In addition to training birds to sing, some people also teach birds talk.

"Hello! Have you eaten?" says a bird owned by Cui Wensheng, a 62-year-old retiree in Beijing.

Every morning he takes Duo Duo to the park near his home to meet with his "bird buddies". It has become a routine of Cui's life, no matter whether it is raining or shining.

"Passersby are intrigued by a talking bird and often stop to tease my bird," Cui says proudly.

He started teaching Duo Duo simple words since it was only four months-old, an age usually regarded the best to teach a hill mynah to talk.

Now his clever pet can say lots of simple sentences, such as, "gongxi facai."(May you be happy and prosperous.) and "huanying." (Welcome.)

"The hill mynah has been described as the best talking bird in the world because they are capable of mimicking any voice or sound they hear," Cui says.

"Some are even able to talk with the same tones and clarity of speech as the human voice they mimic."

For Cui, Duo Duo is not simply a pet, but an interesting companion that brings happiness to the retired man's daily routine.

"I can breathe the crisp air in the early morning and do my exercise while listening to the pleasant chirping of various birds, all making me feel the embrace of the nature," he says.

However, in recent years, as more songbird species have been included in the national protection list, and as environmental concerns rise, some urban residents are putting away their cages and observing wild birds in natural settings.

"Birds are unlike other pets, such as dogs or cats. They love to fly freely in the air instead of confined in a small wooden cage," Su says.

Su often travels with a group of friends to the suburbs of Beijing to observe wild birds and enjoy their beautiful songs. "I am delighted to see more people start to value the relationship between human and birds, and no longer simply take birds as only a pet to entertain themselves," he says.


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