Anthony Bourdain and the birdmen of Guyana

The late Anthony Bourdain captured my attention and enraptured me several years ago by his brilliant storytelling. He described cultural practices of other peoples as joyful discoveries, ending mostly with the food they consumed and the traditions that gave rise to the particular dish. He visited places that I would never see, tried dishes that I would never taste, related cultures that I would never experience, all with a rare gift of dialogue and expert camera work that brought to life the country, its traditions, its people and its food. As he was investigating foods and restaurants in Queens, New York, he discovered the birdmen of Guyana and devoted part of an episode on Queens to them. Relating this story is the best way that I can think of paying tribute to Anthony Bourdain.

There is no time that I do not remember not being revolted by the caging of birds. Whenever the occasional report appeared in the press of a Guyanese being caught by the authorities smuggling birds to New York in the horrendous conditions that smugglers do, I would unsympathetically turn the page, considering the method of smuggling and the life of captivity of birds too painful to contemplate. But the darker reality of the ‘pastime’ came to me a short while ago when I was told that not far away from my home a motorcyclist stopped, dismounted and attempted to rob a passerby of a bird in a birdcage in his hand. Weeks after, it was reported that a young man on a motorcycle was shot dead as he tried to rob someone of a bird being carried in a birdcage. I don’t know if it was the same motorcyclist. Upon inquiry, I was told that a bird can fetch up to $200,000.

As in every case, Bourdain was not judgmental about the ‘pastime’ of caging birds, whether or not he thought that it was wrong. He merely reflected his own fascination and the joy, dedication and satisfaction that the Guyanese obtained from the caring and nurturing of the birds and having them compete in singing competitions. He did so without hiding the illegality of bird smuggling, which appears to be big business in New York. And I must confess, the skill with which Bourdain presented the story sustained my interest and made me forget for the moment my revulsion at the imprisonment of the birds. I was thrilled to see Guyanese in a faraway land maintaining a Guyanese tradition. And I was totally captivated by the racing competition between two birds which was filmed and aired. It was the first time that I saw one.

On September 6 last year, the Guyana Chronicle highlighted the story of the Guyanese birdmen in New York in what appeared to be a transcript of the Bourdain programme. Ray Harinarain, known as ‘Bush,’ emigrated from Berbice in 1987. When he could afford his own birds, he began organising his own competitions and is now the dominant figure in bird-singing competitions as well as the unofficial spokesman for the ‘pastime.’ They take place on Sunday mornings in a small park in Richmond Hill, Queens. Men would erect a patchwork of

wood and metal cages perched on car tops, benches, hanging from telephone poles or wooden stakes planted in the ground. They would swap training tips, vitamins, antibiotics and even birds. Some would sell splash guards for cages and bird seed imported from Guyana. In winter, they rent space indoors.

The competition is usually between two male birds, hung on a pole about an inch apart. Their fierce calls are triggered by an instinctive desire to woo females and defend turf. The birds are judged on the number of songs they sing. The first to reach 50 wins. “I liken it to horse racing in our culture. A lot of money is made both in the sale of the animal and bets and side bets,” said Special Agent Bessey of the Fish and Wildlife Service, which has investigated and reported on the smuggling of birds into the US.

Many birdmen are reluctant to give their names or to speak about their birds or the activity because either the birds are unlawfully imported or the gambling is illegal or they are illegal. But Mr. Harinarain, who imports his birds legally from Brazil, owns 43 of the finches (oxyzoborus angolensis) known as ‘towa towa’ to Guyanese. He spends time and money to care for them. He does so by providing them with bird seed and vitamins, and water so that they can “take a shower.” His garage is decorated with trophies and prizes he won in competitions. Mr. Harinarain can produce birth certificates for his birds, which, like race horses, are bred for their pedigree. His wife complains of him spending Sunday mornings away from home.

The survival of this piece of Guyana in New York was fascinating, notwithstanding my opposition to the caging of birds and the illegal trafficking of them to the United States.  

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