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Bird singing competitions are a fascinating part of Thai culture

From time to time at a variety of locations around Phuket, strange lattices are erected on an open piece of ground.


Alasdair Forbes

Sunday 20 August 2017, 10:00AM


They look like extensive clothes-drying racks, or perhaps something to hang orchids from.

But they are not for either of these purposes. They are for hanging cages from.

The dozens – sometimes hundreds – of cages contain songbirds, most commonly the smart Red-Whiskered Bulbul.

Bird singing contests take place all over Thailand but are particularly popular in the south, where big competitions can attract hundreds of entrants and big prize money.

At first, watching a songbird contest can be confusing. There’s a lot of shouting and people waving their hands. It all seems a bit chaotic.

So here’s a brief guide. The most common contest is not about quality of birdsong, but about quantity.

Known as “singing in four rounds”, it’s a question of how many times the bird will sing (the bulbuls sing in short bursts) in a given period.

Standing on a platform above the fray is the timekeeper. His equipment consists of a whistle, a microphone, a large clear glass jar filled with water, and an ornamental tin bowl with a hole in the bottom of it.

He places the bowl on the surface of the water and blows his whistle (amplified by the mic) to begin the session. The bowl gradually fills and finally sinks.

When it touches the bottom of the jar, the whistle goes again. End of session – usually around 20 to 25 seconds.

Below, judges listen to two birds apiece, indicating the number of times each sings by holding out fingers.

Watching them is like being a spectator at some exotic dance. When the second whistle goes, the judges mark cards hanging from the cages with the number of times the bird has sung in this round.

There are four rounds, during which each bird must sing at least three times in order to advance to the next round.

Good birds may trill as many as eight times in a round. All around, the bird owners lean against ropes strung to keep them back, yelling and whistling to their birds to encourage them.

It’s a wonder the judges can hear anything, but they do.

Gradually the numbers are whittled down as birds fail to keep up with the pace, until finally a winner is declared.

Prize money can be as much as B30,000, or more in big competitions, and winning birds are worth hundreds of thousands of baht.

Other less commonly-held contests judge birds on their quality of voice, on their clarity, even on the way they hop around in their cages while singing.

Judging is of course highly subjective, and some heated disputes can arise between the judges and bird owners. Everyone’s an expert.

Other contests involve doves rather than bulbuls, but these are rarely staged in Phuket. Going to a bird singing contest is a colourful and unique experience.

They are normally held on Sundays, so if you come across one go and have a look. The bird owners are always welcoming and happy to explain what’s going on.

They’ll usually know someone there who speaks English and will drag them over to help explain.

The beautiful wooden bird cages also serve as a decoration for many local shops and houses.

The cages, and the birds to go in them, can be purchased at shops in Phuket Town, such as the one opposite the Honda motorbike dealership on Bangkok Rd, about 300 metres south of the Suriyadej Traffic Circle.

Cheaper, less ornate versions are sold at the large SuperCheap north of town.

There are several main birdsong contest grounds on Phuket, though smaller competitions can pop up anywhere on the island.

So next time when you are driving around the island of a weekend, just keep your eyes open – you’re bound to see a group of people, surrounding dozens of ornate cages hanging from eye-level racks, getting a competition underway.

 

 

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