Sunday, August 3, 2008

Close Encounters of the Feathery Kind

I don’t have a penchant for birds of any particular kind. I do not want to be sentimentally attached to a pet or to any living creature lest I cannot give full attention and care for it.

My uncle used to trap merboks, a kind of singing bird. He had that uncanny talent of spotting a bird landing area just by looking on the ground. He would walk around the wastelands. At certain strategic spots which to the untrained eye would appear ordinary he would stop. ‘There !’ he exclaimed pointing to the ground in front of us. Sure enough. The sand and grass appeared disturbed a bit. There were little marks and light scratchings around them.

He would then go about setting up his trap. It was the primitive type. It comprised one of the spokes of a golf umbrella with a string attached. At the end of the string was a loop laid out over a perch. A step on the perch would trigger off a backlash, and the trap is sprung and the loop would tighten around the bird’s leg. Very simple but very effective.

He would have to check it early the next morning lest poachers (man and animals alike) might not beat him to it. If that happened he would exclaim the same word everytime ‘bingkas’ (meaning ‘sprung’), even when we were 10 metres from reaching the ‘sprung trap’. He could ‘smell’ a spung trap from a distance in the dim light of dawn.

It took time to train the newly trapped merboks, though. The good ones apparently could engage in a melodious reaction just to a snap of the fingers from outside their cages After some time the good ones got sold. These were replaced by some newly trapped ones to be trained yet again. That was why he had many of them all in their cages hanging around his house all the time.

I told him I was fascinated with birds with bright colours but not his drab looking merboks (where incidentally a good one could fetch a tidy sum from the right people)

One day he brought home for me a ‘serindit’ akin to the parakeet (a long tailed smaller parrot-like bird, green in colour). It didn’t cost anywhere near to a merbok but it was just as adorable.

It came in a special horizontal egg-shaped cage with a bamboo shaft in the middle as its perch. When in the mood, it would jump down from its perch and walked and the cage would turn. The cage would twirl round and round when it went faster. It was fascinating to see how it seemed to be enjoying itself, running. It fed on rambutans, and occasionally bird seeds. Salt was an absolute no-no, it would be fatal, apparently.

I had a wonderful time seeing the cage twirl every now and then. However, after some time even at that tender age of 10 years I could feel the cruelty and guilt.The serindit was imprisoned through no fault of its own.

One fine morning, I had an inspiration. I told myself I would just let the serindit decide for itself. I would open the cage door and ‘see what gives’. It would have to make its own choice. I was sure it would, bird-brained or otherwise. Let us see. Would it or would it not. I would open the cage door and see what would happen.

That I did. I had it opened. It must have seen me doing it. It flapped its wings, still perched. No, it wouldn’t. Yes, it would. It walked a few steps to the left as if to decide, then back to the right. It flapped its wings again, the cage rocked. In that split second, in the confusion, it suddenly made it through the cage door!

Yes it did! Clever bird. It decided for itself. It flew out and settled at the edge of the roof. It looked down, surveying, seemingly debating what to do next. It took a few steps, stopped as if to say good-bye and flew away never to be seen again. It was victory for me, for having helped the bird to decide. How very satisfying. The bird was free to fly wherever it desired to go.

A few years later I sensed that strange sensation of victory when I passed by my old school, the Victoria Institution (V.I.) in Kuala Lumpur. Old Victorians would certainly recall the land behind the VIOBA building just outside the main gate. There were a number of pigeon houses. These were looked after by an Indian Muslim family. It was in the late fifties. (sometime in 1958/1959)

These birds would swamp out of their nests as a flock, flew out and disappeared behind the trees and appeared again to later land on the pigeon houses again. I had that same feeling when my serindit flew out and perched on the roof. It was free to decide to fly out or to land. I was glad that I had made the choice to release the serindit years ago.

When I got on the monorail recently, fast tracked to 2008, passing V.I. towards Berjaya Square I spied a modern mosque at the site but the pigeons were no more there. I wonder what happened to them and the family that looked after them.

The mosque is spotless white, a stark contrast to the drab and dirty Pudu Prison abandoned for some time now just barely 1 km down the road.

The Prison is such an eyesore. It is premium territory. Many parties had registered their interests as reported in the media not too long ago.It should be turned into something better, an ultra-modern commercial centre, office complex or park or anything at all, just so it is more kind to the eyes.

Hafi my elder son, when told of the birdhouse plans I was working on endorsed it readily but without the excitement yet. However, deep inside I believe he was happier knowing that there would be some impending economic activities on the vacant land.

Hafi was fascinated with birds. On one occasion he had nearly 15 of them on his head, his shoulders and arms at one time and he could still hold the tin of bird seeds in his hands. It was Trafalgar Square, London, in 1982. He was just 5 years old and he did not seem frightened. He was all excited gleefully facing the camera and at times, grimacing as the birds kept pecking all over. And I was busy snapping all the photos that I could to capture as much of the spectacle.

With the birdhouse, I suppose he’ll be directly involved in due course. This being a long term venture, and he being the elder boy. He would have to take upon the responsibility of managing it in time. Only one birdhouse now, maybe more later. Time will tell.


zainal mokhtar said...

If the place you're describing is Pulau Pandan, then your uncle would have shouted "bingkeh", not bingkas.
I don't believe the story on the serindit - the part about you setting it free.
The Bukit Putus road was first mooted during Dato' Mansor's time. Did you notice the spot where the monkeys (the pig-tailed "berok")gather, waiting to be fed by the motorists who bother to stop. I wonder who called who "you monkey".
I see Halim irreverently calling our beautiful hometown Kolopilah. He forgets his mother is from Terachi.
BTW watch out for the Olympics in a few days time. You'd notice Malaysia sent 45 people - 22 atheletes and 23 officials.

kaykuala said...

No, not Pulau Pandan but Jalan Cheras K.L. where I spent my childhood. My uncle stayed with us while looking for a job and he honed his merbok expertise to kill time initially.

I set it free yes, but I was actually at odds. It was cute but I felt bad keeping it.When I opened the cage door I was hoping it would not go but it went. I was all the happier that it did as rambutans suddenly became scarce when I had a reason to scour for it.

My younger brother Zaha (with the RTM )was posted to Beijing since Feb this yr.I wonder if he will be filing his reports on the Olympics. I'm sure there are specific people doing it.The 23 officials include journos? I doubt it. Must be all sports officials 'gone for a holiday'.So should be more than 23 then (if u include the journos)