On a grassy hill next to a parking lot, nearly a dozen cloth covered wooden cages hung from the trees, each containing a fist-sized bird. Surrounding them, Asian men chatted with each other in Vietnamese, Cambodian, or the Southern Chinese dialect Chaozhou.
Every Sunday morning for the past 15 years this group has met in Garvey Ranch Park accompanied by their birds. Mostly ethnically Chinese immigrants from Vietnam or Cambodia, the men came to the United States for different reasons, from seeking better opportunities to escaping civil unrest. Aviculture, the raising and care of birds, is one of the interests that immigrated across the ocean with them.
“Birds are like us in one respect, as both are immigrants to the country,” said Hong, 60, who works at a restaurant, and has been coming to the park for the past three years.
They are the remnants of a once thriving local practice. Philip, who has frequented the park every Sunday for 15 years and owns more than 50 birds at his Diamond Bar home, recalled that when he started more than a hundred birds were brought to the park by enthusiasts like himself. But in recent years the number gradually decreased when the birds were subject to import restrictions, and as the birds died or the owners moved away.
“There were so many birds and people like us coming to the park every Sunday before, many birds over there too,” another oldtimer, Jack, said, pointing to the empty lawn across from where we stood. “The government made changes to the import regulation, responding to the boom of birds related disease such as SARS and bird flue, causing the birds harder to get and more pricy.” According to Jack, Garvey Ranch Park was the only gathering place for bird collectors in that area.
Birds and supplies can be purchased at Chinese pet markets, with common East Asian breeds such as Hwamei(画眉), Magpie (喜鹊), and Green Singer Finch. The price ranges from $40 to $1000, depending on the bird.
More than just personal pets, they play a meaningful part in their social lives. At the park, the men not only exchange information and insights about birds, but also catch up with recent news and talk about family and work.
Philip moved from Vietnam to the United States some 40 years ago, when he was 15. Aviculture was a familiar hobby from his native country, a common local leisure activity as popular as singing or dancing. He proudly showed me his Shama (长尾四喜), a dark long-tailed bird originally from Singapore, which was unafraid and sang charmingly.
Others started the practice once they had already immigrated to the United States. Hong, the restaurant worker, began his collection in 2008. Despite having a fascination with birds since childhood, he was never allowed to own one by his parents due to hygiene concerns. “Now I am the boss and I can do what I want,” Hong said, pointing to his five bird cages containing four Green Singers (黄额司雀) and a mixed breed bird.
Jack also had not practiced aviculture before moving from Cambodia to here about a decade ago. This is the fourth year of his practice of aviculture. “As a beginner, I haven’t reached the level to say which bird is better than the other yet. You have to consider many things like its pitch, loudness, size, feather, and beauty of the voice,” Jack said. From a plastic bag, he pulled out a pair of long metallic tweezers and a plastic box containing many small worms and grasshoppers. He took out a tiny baby bird by hand from the cage and fed a worm or a grasshopper into its beak with the tweezers. Then he dipped a small paintbrush into water and fed it to the bird. Finally, he mixed the yellow nutrition powder bought at pet market with warm water, and injected some into the bird’s beak with care. “It’s very troublesome and time consuming to care for young birds,” Jack said. He also told me newborn birds had to be fed manually for more than 10 or 20 times a day during the first two weeks to prevent them from dying of hunger or dehydration.
Despite all of the work, I notice all the collectors used the word “play” in Chinese to refer to the practice of aviculture. Jack took a break from feeding the baby to explain: “I play because it’s a way for me to release stress and meet old friends.”