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Mah Wei: Tiny Chinatown Songbirds, but Not Every Day

For years I’ve heard about a Chinatown park where old men bring their exotic birds and this morning I finally went to find it. The Wah-Mei Bird Garden in Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, just south of Delancey, can draw 40-some old Chinese men, each carrying a singing bird in an ornate cage. Or that’s what I’ve heard. I only saw three bird guys.

I arrived around 8, in time to see the first bird man take the flannel cloth off his cage. It must shield the bird from the city, though most of narrow Roosevelt Park itself is not much better. It’s got bridge traffic on two sides and it’s dark and unkempt with wavy pavement and a drugged-out man lurching around. The cages themselves are fantastically carved wood, bamboo and what looked like ivory. They hang them on a long line over a fence that encloses the official Wah-Mei Bird garden. You can hear the birds sing if you get close. Nearby, other elderly Chinese exercised with swords.

The most friendly and happy bird

The bird man schedule remains mysterious to me. I asked the men; they acted like they didn’t understand me. I asked around; workers and dog walkers said it’s every day around this time. (Later, I read on New York Daily Photo blog it’s much busier on weekends.) Any singing bird is welcome, but the most desired are male Wah Mei (Garrulax canorus) that know lots of songs. The men who pretended not to speak English told a local guy can be had for $100 in Queens. Tracy Wong described in a NYU paper how the men get the territorial male birds to compete in singing.

The second bird I saw, another bright yellow one in a fabulous cage that looked like it included ivory, was my favorite. He’s a mimic. I whistled to him and she whistled back. And kept the tune going. He was probably annoying his owner with my tuneless notes all day. He ate from fancy porcelain jugs, too.

The third bird was probably the only one that was really a Wah Mei. CITES, which restricted its import after the bird flu outbreak, says that it’s the most popular bird traded in China. Before the ban, they figured 1.8 were captured each year, with most of the females just eaten.

Probably the only real Wah Mei
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1 comment to Mah Wei: Tiny Chinatown Songbirds, but Not Every Day

  • Anonymous

    This is very sad to cage birds. What crime did they commit? They should be free flying and not caged by humans. horrible