We don’t know what will trigger a memory, sometimes it’s a smell sometimes it’s taste or something that we see. While sitting outside a coffee shop on Rogers Avenue a young man walked by me carrying a small wooden birdcage with a tiny bird inside. Seeing this brought back a memory from when I was a little boy growing up in Guyana, South America.
Birds in their small cages like his, are very common in Guyana. I had always wanted one. Several times I had asked my grandparents if I could have one of these birds, but was told that I was too young to take care of it. I remember taking a trip with my grandparents into the interior of Guyana and visiting a man who had all kinds of birds in a variety of colors. Birds in cages were all over his house. They hung in all the windows singing and chirping against a backdrop of lush trees and plants that surrounded the house. The outside greenery made it seem to me that the birds were still free even though they were caged. He offered me a bird to take back to the city with me. To my surprise my grandmother said yes! Since we had a few days before returning home, the man said he would bring the bird to me the day before I leave to show me what I needed to do to take care of it. He did what he promised, showing me where to put the bird seed, refill the water trough and how to replace the sandpaper that would catch the droppings on the floor of the cage. I was all set to go. The twist to this memory is that on leaving for home the next day I forgot the bird! By the time I realized what I did we were too far along on our journey to return for it. That was a lesson my grandparents taught me about responsibility; they knew I had left without the bird. I never did get a bird. The following year I left for England…
Fast forward to me sitting on a bench in front of my local coffee shop seeing a young man carrying one of these birds. I had to stop him to ask about the bird. He told me it was a “Towa Towa” from Guyana and he was just taking it out for a walk to meet up with other birds and to hang out with other like minded bird men. I asked to go along and see what there gathering was all about.
We walked several blocks from Rogers Avenue and Midwood into the adjacent Crown Heights neighborhood where a small group of men were gathered on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. At first I only saw a couple of cages with these little Towa Towa birds, but as I looked around I saw cages hanging on the walls, on opposite sides of the street, one hung from a fence, and couple of cages were hanging from street sign poles, I even saw a caged bird on the hood of a red late model Cadillac!
What else could I do but ask questions about them and their birds. From talking to the guys, I got to understand the enjoyment and solitude they get from the ritual of taking care of their birds. There is also the gathering of friends old and young that exchange stories about their families where they came from, and experiences with their past and present birds.
Asking where their birds came from I was told that the birds are expensive to import from the Islands due to animal import regulations. They are now being bread in the US, which cuts down on the cost. However the difference being that imported birds are wild whereas the birds that are bread here are tame. This is not just about having a pet to take care of; there is a competitive side to having these birds. With cages placed next to each other the birds compete with their singing. The ferociousness of their singing is counted in a burst of fifty songs eagerly counted by the judges. In the wild they sing to attract the female birds. The first to sing the fifty songs is the winner. This like any sport allows for bragging rights to the winner. These men are not unlike the pigeon man that raised and flew homing pigeons from the roof top of the Williamsburg building I lived in during my early twenties. Unlike homing pigeons, Towa Towa birds won’t come back if you let them out of their cage or if they should escape. I had long lost my desire for one of these birds but seeing it again was a pleasant reminder.
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