A battle of singing stars, with wings and feathers
By Anatoly Kurmanaev
Every Sunday just after dawn, while much of the city sleeps, a group of men gathers on the overgrown lawn of a public park in a quiet neighborhood in the capital of Suriname, South America’s smallest country. They huddle together and hush.
They have birdcages, each carrying a songbird — a picolet, a twa-twa or a rowti, as the species are known here. Over the next few hours, the men will lean in, silent and focused, and listen to the birds as referees note the duration of each burst of singing, and rate each songster’s performance on a chalkboard.
The audience is engrossed, but wins and losses are greeted by handlers with the same quiet collegiality that has marked the morning.
Birdsong competitions, a sort of a Battle of the Bands between trained tropical birds, are a national obsession in Suriname. It is a pastime that is closer to meditation than to the adrenaline-fueled sports that galvanize other nations, but behind it lies years of training, thousands of dollars of investment and a close-knit community quietly resisting the accelerating pace of the modern world.
“Some people like football or basketball,” said Derick Watson, a police officer who, on his days off, helps organize the competitions with a cigar in his mouth. “This is our sport. It’s a way of life.”
Birds are the most popular pets in Suriname, a nation of 500,000 perched on South America’s Atlantic corner, where a pristine tropical forest boasts one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. Cages with parrots and other tropical birds are a common sight in the country’s markets and cafes, and even on the boats and buses that make up public transportation.
The yearly birdsong championship, which culminates in final rounds that are broadcast on national television in December, draws around 100 competitors that square off for trophies and a moment of national glory.
The most accomplished birds, with renowned stamina, sell in Suriname for up to $15,000, a fortune in the poor former Dutch colony, which gained independence in 1975. But part of the sport’s appeal is that at entry level, it is accessible to anyone, with young untrained birds available for just a few dollars in pet shops.
“It’s a tradition,” said Arun Jalimsing, a Surinamese pet shop owner and one of champions of last year’s competition. “We grew up with it. When my father gave me money to buy a bicycle, I went and bought a bird.”
He said that his family has about 200 songbirds at their homes and that he finds their constant peeps, tweets and chirrups relaxing. His wife, he said, does not quite agree.
Training a songbird requires expertise but also immense patience and perseverance. To build the birds’ singing endurance, aficionados spend years stimulating them through interaction, regulating their diets and putting them in proximity with female or male partners, according to elaborate training strategies meant to elicit courtship or competitive behavior from each songbird.
“You constantly observe them at home, observe their behavior,” Watson, the policeman, said.
It is a painstaking, repetitive work but also a long-term investment. Some of the birds can live up to 30 years, a career span surpassing that of most professional athletes.
Suriname is a diverse country, a legacy of the Dutch colonial system, which brought enslaved people and indentured laborers from around the world to work sugar, coffee and banana plantations. The songbird competition reflects that diversity.
“Everybody is friends when they come here,” said Marcel Oostburg, a bird aficionado and a senior official at Suriname’s National Democratic Party, which dominated the country for decades before being ousted in a tense election last year. “We never talk politics here.”
In the narrow streets of the capital, Paramaribo, life unfolds without hurry amid gently decaying wooden cottages left by the Dutch, and slowly silting canals. The honking, loud music and hustle that fill the larger South American cities are notably absent. Paramaribo’s offices empty of workers by 3 p.m.
Suriname’s Dutch language and its ethnic makeup have set the country apart from the rest of the continent, and its people do not fully identify either with their South American or Caribbean neighbors. For most here, the greatest foreign connection is to the Netherlands, a geographically distant former colonial power that is now home to almost as many Surinamese people as Suriname itself.
To attend the weekly birdsong competitions, which begin by 7 a.m., before the tropical heat of the day clamps down on the city, is to unplug from the concerns of daily life.
Each competition lasts 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the type of bird, during which attendants must shut out distractions and listen closely to capture the nuances in their chirping. There are no gadgets in sight, no observable action. The birds barely move.
For hours, the keepers focus only on birdsong, its beauty and complexity.
When the contest is over, there are no loud eruptions of joy or mutterings about the referee’s impartiality. But the smiles of the victorious bird keepers project the pride familiar to any champion.
“It’s the hype; that’s why I come here every weekend,” said Oostburg, the politician.