No screaming when love is a bird
On 22 March birds from across the Archipelago will flock to Central East Java competing for the Arema Cup V, a major national contest staged by the Ornithological Society of Indonesia.
In February 2015 the rules were changed: No screaming, no fighting, only fair play. To enforce the law some of the most humorless soot-suited guards on the market had been hired to patrol heavy steel barriers separating judges and contestants.
If this was a prize fight, a wrestling match or even a football game the security might be understandable – onlookers can get worked up when the sport is violent. But this was a contest of birdsong, not brawlers.
“We’ve had to stop owners from whistling when the judges are working,” said event organizer Alvan. “How can they hear the song properly above noise? But some still get excited.”
Indeed. While the men in black were glaring and fist shaking to pacify birdmen in one part of the 400-strong crowd, supporters on the far side of the square were clapping, chirping and semaphoring.
Their energies were supposed to urge their tiny darlings to reach the top notes that will give their owners the big notes.
Like car-audio technician Oyong Zams and his mate Zamboni Maszams who pocketed Rp 2 million [US$ 160] and a gold-colored lion trophy when their love bird Valentina, 3, won the second round.
Not all contestants came by car, proving the sport is egalitarian. Those who couldn’t persuade a mate to hold the cage on the back of a motorcycle had devised straps to backpack their way to the avian arena.
Here they would test their talents against the best in the ornithological version of Indonesian Idol staged in an old bus depot.
The Indonesian word for ‘bird’ is burung, also a euphemism for the male sexual organs. So the conversation amongst entrants peering at their adversaries is sometimes jocularly bawdy.
By now you’ve guessed that Indonesian songbird competitions aren’t for the genteel. Although the birds are petite and sweet their owners don’t always share the same qualities. Your correspondent had to rearrange his knuckles after every handshake.
Yet these same bonecrushers, with great delicacy, served miniscule morsels of hand-picked insects or the finest kibbled grain to tempt their beloveds. When the sun elbowed its way through the black clouds, the birdmen, carrying sprays like pistols, stopped everything to shower cooling droplets on frazzled feathers, then moved the tweeters to deeper shade.
To keep their protégés ready for the big moment the cages were hooded like tea cosies. Some were made of best batik, others of velvet. Princesses in the Age of Chivalry could not have received gentler care.
Every time the sweethearts opened their bowels or dropped an inedible husk, the bottom tray of their gilded coops was whipped open and washed. If the birdmen’s wives get the same attention, then marriage to one of these guys should make cohabitation with charming Latin lovers or caring feminists a tiresome bore.
“It’s true - if you look after your bird, your bird looks after you,” said Oyong. “I have to keep my thirteen safe from cats and rats. Thieves can also be a problem. The best birds tend to come from Solo and Yogyakarta, but Malang ranks third.”
Apart from the pouting promotion girls working for a tobacco-company sponsor, birdsong contests seem to be men’s stuff. An exception was businesswoman Hamida, 38, (below) who chose her wardrobe to match the plumage of lovebird Blue Ice.
Water authority official Agus Irawan, 49, is a fledgling who started in the sport six months ago with one bird. “I spend only Rp 3000 [US 25 cents] a week on feed,” he said, “but it can be expensive to enter – Sexy cost me Rp 4 million [US $320].”
Bystanders thought this sum too ludicrously small to warrant more than a sneer. One claimed his rainbow-hued parrot had been imported from Holland for five times Agus’ investment.
To ensure the losers don’t let fly alleging bias, half the judges had been recruited from outside Malang. For each of the 29 contests including Best Lovebird Executive, Mixed Star Import and Yellow Crowned Bulbul Professional, the birds were gathered in a group and given pep talks by their carers.
Then the cages were placed on tall stools so the judges could check the hopefuls’ health and fitness to perform, like doctors before a boxing match.
Having passed the medical, the birds’ aviaries were hauled aloft alongside a number. The owners were ordered away and the guards locked the gates, giving the death stare to anyone who looked likely to cause a flap.
Suddenly the singing started as the pampered pretties realised they were among rivals. Had cage doors burst open love birds would have become war birds.
Much though we’d like to believe otherwise, avifauna doesn’t use song to charm humans. They exercise their voices to define territory and threaten intruders – unless the outsiders are member of the opposite sex shopping for a mate who can reach a higher scale.
Imagine the thought-track: ‘He’s got a loud beak but will he make a good provider? I need more than gnats and beetles – my sister’s already getting larvae from her cock’.
The twelve white-shirted judges appeared to listen intently before shouting results to adjudicators. After a few minutes they swapped positions to ensure no favoritism. The scene resembled a stock exchange bear pit where crazed brokers bawl out quotes.
But here the crowd was too far back to hear the thrill of the trill. The hubbub only subsided when the judges announced their decision. Then the gates opened for the rush to retrieve winners and losers.
“I’m not in it for the money,” said Agus, who stayed true to his wish. “It’s difficult to find wildlife in the suburbs, apart from sparrows, so this is a way to get closer to nature and understand conservation.”
First published in The Jakarta Post 10 March 2015)