Guyanese Listen for a Different Kind of Tweet

Rajendra "Bush" Harinarian's Guyanese wild finch, Baby.

Rajendra "Bush" Harinarian's Guyanese wild finch, Baby.

BY SCOTT SELL

The men gather in Smokey Oval Park before sunrise, sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups as they walk around to see what their competition looks like.

And sounds like.

Birdcages made of wood and wire hang from tree branches, sit on car hoods and on special wooden stakes. Some, perhaps too precious to leave unattended, are held by their owners. Inside the cages, small, black-and-rust bellied Guyanese wild finches rest on their perches.

They wait to sing. Their owners wait to see whose song will be the sweetest.

This is the world of “bird racing,” raising and exhibiting competitive songbirds. And, according to enthusiasts, this tiny park in the Richmond Hill neighborhood of Queens is the only place in New York where it’s practiced as passionately as it is in the West Indies. Many of the men that congregate here on early Sunday mornings are Caribbean immigrants, but most are from Guyana, where keeping – or “minding” – birds is as much their national pastime as cricket.

“We’ve been doing this since we were kids in Guyana,” said a minder named Tony, who, like others interviewed at the park, refused to give his last name. He wore a necklace made from Guyanese gold and a baseball cap with a cardinal embroidered on the front. “We used to go out into the fields and collect seeds for the birds we caught ourselves.”

In most cases, minding birds was something taught by their fathers. In Guyana, Tony explained, it is a rite of passage to own your own male finch and show it off to the village. And if you train your finch to sing loudly, clearly and quickly, you then pit him against another neighbor’s bird in a singing contest.

The competition is simple: one man will quietly challenge another to place their bird cages side by side, remove cloth cage covers and let their finches do what they do best: sing their mating song. There’s not a female finch in sight, but the males vie for her attention anyhow. They tweet sweetly and rapidly, sometimes fluttering wildly around their cages. The men watch and listen intently, silently counting to 50, usually the number of tweets a finch must sing before being declared the winner.

“They’re like Kentucky Derby horses,” said Rajendra “Bush” Harinarian of Brooklyn.  “But they’re not just playthings. We take really good care of them, like they’re our children.”

Richmond Hill is home to some 17,600 Guyanese immigrants, making it the largest such concentration in New York. Bird racing has gone relatively unnoticed there over the years, but a string of recent bird smuggling arrests has put Little Guyana, as it is known, on the federal government’s radar. In 2006, Terrance McLean, formerly of Elmhurst, was caught attempting to smuggle Guyanese finches through Kennedy Airport by hiding them in plastic hair curlers. U.S. law bars residents from bringing live animals into the country without declaring them first.

In McLean’s case, he could have had to pay up to $25,000 in fines. Charges against McLean, however, were dropped after U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Levy found the case defective.

But in places like Smokey Oval Park, the bird minders worry about more investigations. The case brought media attention to their pastime, as well as their favorite spot in Queens, which, after this week, will be quiet as the cold weather moves the tropical finches indoors.

“People are nervous now,” said Harry Dukhram of Richmond Hill, who leaves his finches at home, but comes each week as a spectator. “They’re afraid they might be in trouble for simply having a finch from Guyana.”

Gambling is another issue. The arrests sparked news reports that wagers are made and money trades hands during the races. Many of the men insist that it’s simply not true.

“We train our birds to be competitive, to sing the best,” said Harinarian, “but the most that happens is the loser will buy the winner a cup of coffee.”

More and more people are learning to breed their finches, because it alleviates the need to rely on smuggled birds, Harinarian said. He maintains a small aviary near his home and said he owns over 80 birds, mostly finches and canaries.

“Birds bred in captivity live a longer life,” he said. “Where they might live seven or eight years in the wild, they’ll get to be 20 years old if treated right.”

Breeding also gives minders an opportunity to make a profit: a healthy, vocal finch can sell for several hundred, even thousands, of dollars.

On a recent day, Harinarian brought two birds to Smokey Oval. One, sitting by his side on a bench, is named Drizzle, “because he’s so fast, like the rain.” The other is 65 days old and hangs on the fence, like a centerpiece of the park. This finch – he calls him Baby – is a strong singer for being so young and Harinarian has been offered up to $1,300 for him.

But Harinarian won’t part with Baby.

He said he knows a good thing when he hears it.

Photo – Scott Sell

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