Colorful Hua Mei Birds Put Pigeons to Shame

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We all expect to see pigeons in city parks. So you can imagine the surprise when passersby encounter exotic songbirds at a garden in Manhattan's Chinatown. Every morning, rain or shine, Chinese immigrants show off their pets, so-called Hua Mei birds. George Bodarky of member station WFUV visited the park on a recent Saturday morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

We all expect to see pigeons in New York City parks. But George Bodarky from member station WFUV discovered many more exotic birds on a recent Saturday morning. He sent this audio postcard.

(Soundbite of chirping birds)

GEORGE BODARKY: These are far from the sounds of honking cars and screaming fire engines, but don't be fooled. This is New York City. I'm in a park in Manhattan's Chinatown. Every morning, Chinese immigrants come here to show off their pets, Hua Mei birds.

Gordon Douglas(ph) lives in the neighborhood. This is the first time he's been out early enough to hear the Hua Meis sing.

Mr. GORDON DOUGLAS (Resident, New York City): These are not New York City birds. They're not pigeons. You know, you don't hear birds a lot in the city. They're very exotic and wonderful.

BODARKY: Hua Mei means painted brow and once they saw the birds that quickly got it. They have blue and white marking around their eyes. Hua Meis are among the most popular songbirds in China, but they're successfully bred in the U.S. Tommy Chan(ph) drives down twice a week from his Upstate New York home to show off his Hua Mei.

Mr. TOMMY CHAN (Resident, New York City): The bird, it's just calming. The songs, it is soothing me. And I also talk to the people - nothing to do with business. Just a friendship, you know, exchanging idea of our bird. So, you know, very relaxing to me.

Unidentified Man: (Chinese Spoken)

BODARKY: Bird owners sit on or lean against an iron railing in the parks. Chan is one of the few who speaks English. At 50-something, he's also one of the youngest.

This morning, the men have carried in about 40 Hua Mei birds. Some of their bamboo cages are placed among the greenery in a little garden. Others hang from poles pieced together from old plumbing pipes or swings on the nylon line. And some of the cages are covered with white cotton sheet.

Hua Meis, I'm told, are very territorial. When they see each other, they fight. Otherwise, they sing.

Mr. WEI LEE(ph) (Resident, Brooklyn, New York): They sing they try to find(ph) a male, a female. That's why they sing.

BODARKY: Brooklyn resident Wei Lee is somewhat of an authority on Hua Mei birds. He's been coming here to listen to them sing for many years. In the early 1990s, just a few Chinese men brought their birds here to sing. The park at that time was actually a haven for drug dealers.

But Ana Magenta(ph) teamed up with her Chinese neighbors to reclaim the park and to make the garden the oasis it is today.

Ms. ANA MAGENTA (Resident, New York City): This is the only bird garden outside of Hong Kong. There's a birdman arriving now - another one.

BODARKY: One visitor tells me that hearing the Hua Meis sing is like watching a sunrise.

For NPR News, I'm George Bodarky in New York.

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