A few wild birds that escaped being eaten

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- In Vietnam, chickens and ducks are often sold live in the markets. The usual way of transporting fowl is tied by the legs, hanging upside down from a motorbike. The first time I saw ducks carried this way there must have been close to 100 of them.
A man standing at the curb by the Han River Bridge, in Danang, was selling wild birds – about 20 of them. They seemed to look me right in the eye as I passed. I knew I had to do something. I hurried to get the help of my friend Truc.
By the time we returned, several were already gone, but there were 12 small, brown-speckled birds with long narrow beaks. As soon as Truc saw them, she said, ‘Oh, men like to grill these birds and eat them with beer.’ Hanging by the legs in bunches of three, the traffic roaring, the birds were distressed. Some were bleeding. One looked like it had a broken wing.
Truc bargained to buy the lot. The man was quite tough, but finally settled on VND230,000 (then about $12.50). Quizzing him, Truc found out they had been caught with nets about 100 km away. He said he had many more in cages and would be back later with them.
Truc and I drove some way along the river until we found rice paddies near thick undergrowth – an ideal place to release them. Their legs were bound tightly with red plastic twine. Two were dead. According to my Buddhist teacher, when liberating creatures from death one should chant the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, which we did. Those still living, once freed, took a while to find their legs and flopped about in the grass before disappearing into the thickets.
That evening I found a website for birdwatchers and made contact with Minh, a ranger in Bach Ma National Park. From him I learnt it was illegal to trade in wild birds, but the law was not strictly enforced. We exchanged e-mails and phone calls over a fortnight. Minh gave me a bird book, and I discovered the birds I had released were ‘common snipe,’ a wading bird that thrived in the rice paddies.
The next time I saw the bird-seller, I bought his entire stock for VND140,000 – another two snipe tied together (one of which was already blind in one eye from the other one’s pecking at it) and five other birds in a bunch; they were very pretty, charcoal grey, with a white head and throat, a vivid green beak and orange forehead. I later identified them as white-breasted water hen. I released them near the same spot. Again, it took the snipe a while to recover, but the grey ones all shot off into the brush the moment the string broke. Om Mani Padme Hum.
­­­Soon, the bird-seller was there every day, rain or shine, with about 50 birds of varied species. I wondered how wild birds could be such easy prey, but Minh told me they nested on the ground and were easily caught at night. I told my friend Phuong about the birds and asked her to be my accomplice in buying them up, because foreigners were charged more than locals. I gave her VND300,000, hoping she might be able to buy them all with that sum. To get the best price, Phuong claimed she wanted to start a business and sell the birds herself. After long negotiation and pitching in some of her own money, she was only able to rescue 20. We laid them gently down in the grass; this time I had a penknife and cut them free. Om Mani Padme Hum. Phuong shared my jubilation when each one launched itself into the air and across the paddy.
However, five were too weak to fly or even stand, and meanwhile a man on a bicycle spotted us squatting in the undergrowth and came to investigate. He was a little odd. He said he wanted a bird to take home. I thought he must want to eat one, so offered him the one that had just died, but he shook his head. Fearing for their safety, I had to bring them home, carefully wrapped in a sarong slung around my neck.
One was dead on arrival. Another, with large, olive-green eyes and olive-coloured feathers, called a greater painted snipe, fluttered out the window, but sat in the window box for hours before taking off to freedom. A dark bird with a short black beak seemed ready to go, so I took it on to the roof. It ran around there between the potted trees all evening. I thought it was a juvenile, and therefore unable to fly. Next morning it was gone.
So then there were two snipe left inside in a box. They took water, and I worked out how to feed them by dropping some fish pieces and greens in water. I marvelled at how skilfully they used their beaks, just like chopsticks. One was trying to get into the bowl, so I transferred the water to a large flat dish and the bird was very happy standing in that and foraging. The other one was unable to stand, so I called my friend, Lam, to find a vet.
Within half an hour, Lam was at my door. He had found a bird-breeder who instructed him to splint the broken leg using crushed turmeric. That bird also ate from the water bowl, with me holding it.
I played Om Mani Padme Hum softly through the night. The next morning the one snipe was still standing in the dish, but the injured bird had died. Lam and I took the survivor to the bird-breeder for a check-up. I’d imagined a backyard bird-fancier, but, to my dismay, it was a pet shop full of cages holding hundreds of birds. Several men stood smoking, clustered around a tub of plastic bags full of live grasshoppers (fishing bait). The breeder said the snipe’s wings and legs were fine, but it was too young to fly. He suggested releasing it near our local mountain, Son Tra. I couldn’t wait to get myself and the snipe out of there.
Driving to Son Tra, I found a sheltered spot between the road and the sea and sat the birds on my hand, expecting them to take flight. But they seemed reluctant. After a few minutes, I tossed them into the air, one by one, and they flew down into the undergrowth. I chanted Om Mani Padme Hum a few more times before I tore myself away, hoping that I had done the right thing.
A couple of days later, I returned to the spot and chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, and there was an immediate, shrill response from a bird somewhere in the undergrowth. I was sure it was one of my snipe.

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