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A Visit With The Birdmen Of Beijing
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A Visit With The Birdmen Of Beijing

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A Visit With The Birdmen Of Beijing
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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

It wouldn't be a proper visit to a Beijing park without checking out the birdmen. Every morning, the parks are atwitter as elderly residents hang their birdcages on tree branches, or stroll along swinging the birdcages in both hands. But modern pastimes and measures to protect endangered bird species and guard against bird flu, are taking their toll on this centuries-old tradition.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIRPING)

ANTHONY KUHN: Up above, the birds chirp in their cages hanging from trees. Down below, their owners chatter and play cards. They sit on tiny stools and slap their playing cards down on the table. The willow tree's new green leaves stand out against the crimson walls around Beijing's Coal Hill Park.

Retired mechanic Wu Dazhao explains that people here tend to hang out with their own kind, and that depends on what kind of birds they raise.

WU DAZHAO: (Through translator) Those guys over there with the cloths covering their cages, they're the titmouse guys. We song thrush people are over here and the guys with the larks are over there. The different groups leave each other alone. You could say that in this little group, we're all bird buddies.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIRPING)

KUHN: That's local resident Li Bingzhen's song thrush. He says both song thrushes and their owners tend to be more vocal and extroverted types.

LI BINGZHEN: (Through translator) Historically, military men liked to raise song thrushes. Scholars liked to raise skylarks. Skylarks don't disturb scholars while they're studying. They're very quiet.

KUHN: Song thrush owners get exercise by swinging their birdcages when they walk, Li explains, and the thrushes get exercise by clinging to their perches.

HANSEN: (Through translator) To put it simply, to take care of a bird is to take care of yourself. Walking your bird is also taking yourself for a stroll. It's like going to work every morning at eight o'clock, rain or shine. The routine of raising a bird is just like that.

KUHN: In imperial times, Manchu nobles idled away their days raising birds, crickets and goldfish and lavishing money on ornate cages and other paraphernalia. But since the government banned trade in thrushes, skylarks and other endangered species a couple of years ago, you have to go to Beijing's suburbs, where the ban is laxly enforced.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIRPING)

KUHN: At the Hongyan market, there are pets of every genus and phylum. A woman pounds birdseed with a wooden mortar and pestle. Other bird snacks, in the form of little white grubs, wriggle in a bin. One birdman, who only gave his surname, Zhang, is looking to buy a skylark.

ZHANG: (Through translator) This kind of bird must be taught to sing under a person's supervision. Each sound the bird makes must be correct and none should be missing.

KUHN: You can spot a lark's cage right away because there's sand on the cage floor to recreate the bird's habitat on the steppes of Inner Mongolia. While most cages have little porcelain bowls for food and water, the skylarks' water bowls are outside, to keep the water from muddying the sand. Most importantly, Zhang explains, there's a little table-like perch in the middle of the cage.

ZHANG: (Through translator) A trained lark will get up on his pedestal and sing 13 different tunes, each in the proper order. This was how old Beijing gentlemen did it. But quite frankly, the old ways are now almost extinct.

KUHN: Mr. Zhang explains wistfully that the vendor here will not sell him this particular skylark until it lays some eggs. And only then, Zhang says, can he begin the two or three-year-long process of training the lark, and gradually build a fine-feathered friendship.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIRPING)

HANSEN: You can see pictures of the birds and the men who take care of them on our Web site, NPR.org.

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