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They know why the caged bird sings

By 24 June 2009 No Comment
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Birds are fly: Avian enthusiasts swap notes in a Xi'an park | Photo by Kelly West

The screeching from the birdcages dangling in the trees made it difficult to carry on a conversation. I raised my voice to be heard over the din in the public park just outside the walls of Xi’an, and asked about the scene.

“The birds and people are communicating,” said retiree Cao Tongxue, 68, who sat on a folding chair with a group of friends, while his four birds chattered from their cages nearby.

I had noted the prevalence of “bird walkers” in China since first spotting them in Beijing. Older men stroll through public parks, swinging domed birdcages in a pendulum motion or hang the cages in trees. Just after dawn at the north gate of Xi’an, I spotted a group amid the avian cacophony. The men, mostly senior and retired, set down their cages to chat in informal circles.

“We forget about boring family stuff if we talk about the birds,” said Cao.

Chen Yuanqin, 76, agrees. Chen, who retired 15 years ago, has three birds he brings to the park every morning. His birds have become an extremely important part of his life and even provide a kind of spiritual support, he said. And of course, they are also a nice excuse to get out in the fresh air and meet up with friends.

And by friends, they mean other retired men. There’s no sentimentality about their winged companions. These birds, unlike other family pets, are rarely given names. Valued mainly for their singing voices, they never leave their cages.

“If the bird doesn’t sing well, we sell it,” said Cao.

Birds are often traded and sold throughout their lifespans, which can last as long as 18 years. There is a clear hierarchy for the singers as well. Younger birds that don’t sing as well sit in cages on the ground, while the more gifted warblers are elevated to the tree branches.

And what about this vigorous swinging of the birdcages?

“Swinging birds makes them very obedient,” said Lian Quanxi, 56, owner of six birds.

The activity is good exercise for the birds as well, Lian said, as it trains them to tightly grip the crossbeam in their cages. And it doesn’t hurt to tone up the owners’ swinging shoulder muscles.

Although these noisy birds with intricately designed eyebrows are small enough to fit in your palm, they represent big changes in China’s economy. Chen’s father would never have been able to own birds, Chen said. Although even the most expensive birds only cost around 500 RMB (USD 73.15), only the richest Chinese would have had the money and leisure to raise them until recently. As China’s economy has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, so has the proportion of middle-class Chinese.

Chen unloads three cages of birds from the back of a motorized scooter and removes their protective coverings. As he chats with me about his “hobby,” friends walk by and affectionately rub his head or tease him about talking to the curious American girl. The camaraderie of this morning routine is not just for the birds.

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Unsentimental songs: Bird men encourage avian cacophony | Photo by Kelly West

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