Pampered songbirds vie for fame in Indonesia

By Jano Gibson

JAKARTA, Wednesday 16 February 2011 (AFP) - On a grassy field on the outskirts of Jakarta a young bird trainer is crouched beside an ornate cage, carefully spraying a fine mist of water over a canary called Samurai.

The yellow songbird is being pampered as it waits to do battle in a bird singing contest -- a popular hobby in Indonesia which is now a multi-million dollar industry with professional trainers, bird brokers and wealthy enthusiasts willing to pay thousands of dollars for prize-winning performers.

When the call-up comes, Samurai's trainer carries its cage into the small outdoor arena and gently hangs it alongside more than 40 other cages containing chirping canaries.

As the contest gets underway, the men who have placed their birds in the arena begin to shout and whistle from behind a perimeter fence. They clap their hands, wag their fingers and wave their arms up and down.

It looks like a scene from the trading floor of a stock exchange, where brokers use frantic hand signals to buy and sell. But this peculiar behaviour is designed to get the attention of the birds, which are trained to respond with continuous song.

"Every contest venue is unique," says Indonesian Association for Bird Conservation secretary Binsar. "In some places people quietly listen to the birds while drinking tea. But in others, spectators are screaming. It's like listening to Metallica. It's crazy."

While the shouting makes it almost impossible for spectators to hear the songs of individual birds, six judges are stationed directly beneath the dangling cages, tuning into the chirps, whistles and tweets.

After 20 minutes of competition, the judges confer and place a flag under the bird with the loudest and most interesting repertoire.

Two men in the crowd high-five each other and go to collect their $200 prize. Samurai’s trainer shakes his head, dismayed the judges did not declare his bird the winner.

The bird singing industry contributes more than $80 million per year to Indonesia's economy through the sale of birds, the manufacture of cages and the production of live food like worms and crickets, according to a study conducted in 2006 by Oxford University and Birds Indonesia.

The study estimated almost a million songbirds are kept in captivity in the country, with about 75,000 people actively involved in bird singing competitions.

Over the past decade, a number of birds have attained legendary status for their unique and dazzling performances. The most notable was a champion orange-headed thrush called Zemorana, which would "shake like an earthquake" during its repertoire. It was eventually sold by its owner for $30,000.

Bird singing enthusiasts go to great lengths to achieve success at competitions. Duta Ong, for example, has three full-time staff to clean, feed and train his flock of songbirds.

"You try to prepare the birds as much as you can," the wealthy telecommunications executive says. "But still, they are living things. Sometimes the performance is good, sometimes the performance is bad."

The 43-year-old started to collect birds about 10 years ago, when he longed for the sounds of nature he recalled as a child growing up in a rural Javanese village. Birdsong is rarely heard in the traffic-choked capital Jakarta.

"You miss that situation where in the morning you can hear the birds singing, so you try to start by collecting birds," he said.

"I just collected one by one, and then suddenly, last time I counted, I had 130."

For Ong, the thrill of the contest and the prestige of victory outweighs any financial motivation.

"Sometimes when my birds are in peak condition, a lot of rich men try to buy them from me. Sometimes they offer $20,000 but I say no. I am not trying to get money from this."

Only a handful of the 10 species used in contests are bred in captivity. The rest are caught in the wild as chicks.

In recent years, conservation groups have tried to curb this threat by organising contests exclusively for birds bred in captivity. The entry fee is cheaper and the prize money greater than in non-controlled events.

"The objective is to reduce pressure to the natural bird population." Indonesian Association for Bird Conservation chairman Dr. Made Prana says.

MySinchew 2011.02.16