The Social Lives of Chinese Songbirds

 

Taking the dog out is nothing unusual – but since when do pet birds get taken for walks? In China, since the Qing Dynasty. Songbirds have been a common pet in China for centuries, and while the birds are confined to cages, to care for one properly involves a daily regimen of walks and socialization.

In every Chinese city, countless songbirds, usually minahs, trushes, or larks, are kept in handmade bamboo cages with a hanger built into the top. Many of their pets are very well-trained - its not uncommon to hear a mynah belting out the entire Chinese National Anthem, or a bird hung in the doorway of a shop welcoming passersby to come in for a look. While walking their birds, a bird's owner will swing the cage back and forth like a pendulum, forcing the bird to get a bit of exercise as it clings to its perch.

Once in the park, the birdcages are hung near each other on low hanging tree branches, giving the birds a chance to socialize while their owners do the same. A bird that isn’t taken out, bird owners say, will become depressed; it will not sing and will lose its feathers.  

Despite the care that goes into raising birds, China’s increasingly humane perspective on pets is creating some backlash towards the practice of keeping songbirds: 54% of students polled in a recent study published in China's Animal People Magazine said they thought the practice of keeping caged birds was “unacceptably cruel.”

Another drawback is that although many of the birds have been raised in captivity for generations, there is no differentiation between wild-caught and captive-bred birds in bird markets, and many bird lovers are calling for a ban on pet bird sales to protect China’s remaining wild birds.

Nevertheless, in a country that has lost the vast majority of it’s avian wildlife to hunting and habitat loss, these pets fill otherwise quiet city spaces with the sound of birds, even if they are singing from behind bars.

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