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People get involved with cuckoos

(No.7, Vol.2, July 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

I had a passion for bird-trapping when I was in school, but not the experience to do it alone. I had to accompany an experienced person, a farmer, of an older generation.
The crow of the cuckoo was heard everywhere in gardens, especially when the rice had turned from green to yellow all over the fields (before it ripened) and the spring air had come. The cuckoos, by that time, had had enough to eat, and begun to compete with each other, cooing for love and showing off. The males and females created a permanent hubbub on high branches, coupling and building nests.
A couple of years ago, I returned to my home town, Can Tho, in the Mekong Delta, to visit uncle Tu On, who had been bird-trapping since he was 30. He was now 70.
I watched his ornamental birds of all kinds, tailorbirds, nightingales, mynahs and rackles, and, first and foremost, cuckoos. They jumped around in their cages and raised their voices, chirping and chattering like a symphony orchestra.
Before 1975, when the war was on, the bombs, machineguns and aircraft engines frightened the birds away. They had to find safe refuge. This made Tu On try to find something else to do.
Tu On’s method began with catching as many as five or ten cuckoos, choosing ones with dazzling, bright-red legs, or ones that would crow incessantly. Ones with dark-red or black-blue legs he would give away to children or apprentices.
He chose healthy, smart cuckoo couples with nice voices to breed. Cuckoos are fully grown in one year and develop their crowing skills within three to four.
The essential thing was to have a smart and warlike provocateur cuckoo that knew how to attract lovers and challenge opponents.
An ideal provocateur cuckoo needs to have a small head, nail-like beak and silky, light-grey plumage. A cuckoo with a light-grey plumage has a low voice, while one with a brown plumage has a high voice.
Once cuckoos are put in a cage far away from their natural surroundings, they sometimes refuse to eat and stop crowing, though they are friendly and enjoy living close to people.
When Vietnamese people are far from home, they may feel homesick when they hear a cuckoo’s crow. The crowing reminds them of the contented ambience when the male and the female declare love.
In the cuckoos’ world, each region is dominated by a ‘lord’. The crowing is an indicator of power as well as a call to the female.
In the morning when the weather is good, the ‘lord’ feels aroused and flies back and forth, flapping its wings noisily up and down to show off its plumage, especially when it hears the crow of a strange cuckoo that is going to invade its territory or when a female is sexually aroused. It flies high then plunges toward any opponent, swelling its full, round chest.
At my uncle Tu On’s place, he walked toward the cages hung in the veranda, whistling, and said, ‘Say “hi” to the guest’. The cuckoos crowed and emitted ‘coo’, ‘coo’, ‘coo’, bowing to me.
My uncle picked up a trap and gave it to me as he held a cage with a provocateur cookoo inside. He then took me to a garden with big trees, trying to seduce a wild cuckoo that had a nice crowing voice. He thrust his hand into the cage, took out the provocateur cuckoo and put into the trap. Then he climbed on to a fruit tree, hung the trap on a branch of the tree and sat to wait.
The leaves rustling in the blowing wind excite a provocateur cuckoo, which looks around for a while, then raises its crowing as if it is going to fight. In the beginning the crowing is slow, then becomes more and more hurried. From a bush in the distance, a ‘lord’ cuckoo begins to reply with a string of crows filled with pride, as it is said, as if to tell the stranger not to invade its territory.
The provocateur continues its challenging crows. The wild cuckoo then flaps its wings, moves toward the provocateur, settles itself in the same tree and raises its crowing, showing off its strength. The provocateur does the same.
The wild cuckoo can’t help getting angry, as it is put, so it rushes up and begins to attack. But as soon as it touches a slat, the trap comes down.
When I was a young boy, waiting for the wild cuckoo to descend was exciting. I had to hide holding my breath, trying to suppress a cough and not to move when bitten by ants.

Text and Picture by Huynh Van Nguyet
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