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Bird lovers sing the same tune

Enthusiasts drawn by common love to gatherings at a field in Ang Mo Kio. -ST
David Ee

Tue, Feb 05, 2013
The Straits Times

Some of the birds in cages in a field near Block 159, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5. The avian gathering every weekend is overseen by the Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club.

SINGAPORE - Thirty years on, bird lovers continue to flock to a field near Block 159, Ang Mo Kio Avenue 5, every weekend.

The enthusiasts, who are mainly older men, turn up at the field adjoining a carpark from as early as before dawn.

If you show up at 6.45am, that is "considered late", says a retiree who wanted to be known only as Mr Veerasamy. The 58-year-old has come from Pasir Ris to join the crowd of people - which can number up to 100 - on this particular Sunday.

Here, they hang their intricately designed birdcages from the hundreds of wooden poles that dot the field.

"My father used to keep birds in the kampung, so I got started lah," says Mr Veerasamy, whose love affair with the feathered creatures goes back two decades.

While the Sunday outing provides a space for the birds to trill, chirp and generally whoop it up, it also provides an opportunity for their owners to compare notes, both about the singing and their own lives.

It is a kampung-like camaraderie and atmosphere that these men find comfort and meaning in, even as the world has gone on to celebrate a different kind of tweet - the social-media type.

Mr Veerasamy's friends are here. Mr Michael Lim, 43, lives in Jurong, while audit officer Rashid Che Ross, 59, resides in Yishun.

The bird atop the pecking order for the trio, and most others here, is the zebra dove.

Known locally by the Malay name merbok, it is a slender, light brown-grey bird with a pale blue head.

It may not look striking, and some think that it is a pigeon, but its melodious call, a series of staccato coos, is something to crow about.

The bird often features in singing competitions here and abroad, and one with a deeper, slower and louder call is especially prized, says Mr Rashid.

The Singapore record price for a merbok is a cool $96,000.

Mr Rashid himself paid $15,000 in total for his three merbok, which were brought in from Thailand before the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, outbreak in 2003 suspended imports.

While non-bird lovers would have a hard time separating one merbok from another, Mr Lim says each has a unique and distinctive call.

Just like people, Mr Rashid explains with a laugh. "Your voice is your voice, my voice is my voice. Tom Jones means Tom Jones."

Mr Veerasamy, who owns three merbok, says: "Even if I don't see the bird, I know which one is singing."

But there is no guarantee that the birds are always in the mood to warble.

"If they're used to singing at home, sometimes if they go out, they won't sing," says Mr Veerasamy. "They are like humans. Some of them get cold sweat when they see crowds."

As the morning gets warmer, more people turn up.

Among them is 68-year-old Mr Robin Chua, vice-chairman of the Kebun Baru Birdsinging Club, which oversees the avian gathering.

He says the plot of land on which the poles stand is managed by the National Parks Board and the town council.

Both agencies are happy that the gathering "makes this place more vibrant".

"Everyone comes here to relax. If they want, they can hang their birdcages, then go jogging," he says.

"Young people should come here. It's better than drinking or gambling."

One younger convert is Ms Susan Marsam, 31, a property agent who has kept songbirds for 13 years, and now owns four white-rumped shamas and two red-whiskered bulbuls.

She is at the gathering to leave the stress behind, she says.

"I live in an HDB flat but I want to feel the kampung environment. Singapore is just too stressful," she adds.

"You get peace of mind here. You listen to the birds, you switch off, relax (and) don't think about work."

Many of the bird lovers here feed their birds with vitamins to keep them healthy, just as they would with their own children.

But not many youngsters show up at these weekly gatherings. Mr Lim says: "This is a dying hobby. Very few youngsters come. They don't have time."

While Mr Rashid says his children may not know how to take care of his birds, he makes sure that they understand how the hobby can help them connect with other people.

"I always tell my children, if you make friends, they should be of any race or religion," he says.

"We all like birds. Any race also, we like birds. Any religion also."

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