Where the Birds Sing

For a glimpse into the Singapore of yesterday, nothing beats a visit to the Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club.

While it’s now a dwindling pastime, bird collecting has been a fixture in Singapore for decades, and “bird corner” gathering places still dot the island. The largest of these may be found along a small strip at the edge of Ang Mo Kio Town Garden West. A visit here is a fantastic — and fantastically noisy — way to spend a morning:

The Kebun Baru Bird Singing Club can accommodate over 1,000 birds, and people stream from all over Singapore with cages in hand every weekend morning. While collectors here come in all shapes and sizes, two defining features are that they are mostly older and almost all male (though I have been assured that there are some female hobbyists).

These dedicated collectors come out to socialize, admire each other’s birds, exchange words of advice, and give their animals some time for group vocalization. They display most of their birds beneath large overhangs like the one you see above and line up along the sidewalk for viewing and chatting. The doves, however, have a special location: they can be found out like flags on poles out in an open Dr. Seuss-like field.

And the tiniest songbirds are kept right at the edge of the local eating house:

Some of the more popular birds here are the Chinese hwamei (also called the melodious laughingthrush) …

… the red-whiskered bulbul …

… the Indian white-eye (also known as the Oriental white-eye) …

… the white-rumped shama …

… and the zebra dove (known in Singapore as a merbok):

Many of these species are a big change from bird keeping’s first days in Singapore following World War II; at that point, the most commonly collected birds were budgerigars, canaries, the Java sparrow, the Oriental Magpie Robin, and parrots. But the merboks have always been popular, both now and them. I am told that they are prized as the best singers …

…but to my mind, no song beats the lilting whistle of a shama thrush.

I’m guessing that everyone will agree that the tiny white-eyes are the most acrobatic:

Each bird has its own special kind of cage — the doves have a domed top (or a crown), while the bulbuls’ cages are triangular, and so on:

These cages are paired with with special covers (to keep the birds feeling safe during transport):

The doves have the fanciest trappings of all:

The cages themselves — especially those of the hwamei and the shama thrush — are often beautifully carved, which means that the cage alone can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

The birds, though, are the priciest bit; a starter might run you about $200 SGD, and a prize-winning dove can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Then you need to pay per bird to enter singing competitions, in which birds are judged in categories like song duration and quality. So all of this represents a significant investment, both of time and of money.

Bird selling is big business here in Singapore; in 2015, there were nearly 6,500 Indian white-eyes alone for sale in Singapore pet shops (the next two most popular birds were the red-whiskered bulbul and the zebra dove). Most of the birds sold here are not native to Singapore, which means the country is extremely active in the international bird-trading business. This raises all sorts of questions about the possible illegal capture of birds or nests from the wild, which you can read more about here (in addition to the added question of whether birds want to be in cages in the first place). So I left this outing with a few mixed feelings.

All of that said, a visit to the The Kabun Baru Birdsinging Club is an unforgettable experience. They keep a very active Facebook page — and if you scroll all the way back to late November 2020, you can see my picture there!

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