Bird singing competitions are a fascinating part of Thai culture

From time to time, in various places around Phuket, strange trellises are erected on open ground.

They look like huge clothes dryers, or maybe something to hang orchids on.

But they are not intended for any of these purposes. They are intended for hanging cages.

The dozens – sometimes hundreds – of cages contain songbirds, most often the intelligent Red-Whiskered Bulbul.

Bird singing competitions are held all over Thailand, but are especially popular in the south, where large competitions can attract hundreds of participants and big prizes.

At first, watching a songbird competition can be confusing. There is a lot of screaming and people waving their hands. Everything seems a bit chaotic.

So here is a little guide. The most common competition is not about the quality of the birdsong, but about the quantity.

Known as “four-turn song,” this is how many times the bird will sing (bulbuls sing in short bursts) in a given time period.

Standing on a platform above the scrum is the timekeeper. Its equipment consists of a whistle, a microphone, a large transparent glass jar filled with water and an ornamental pewter bowl with a hole in the bottom.

He puts the bowl on the surface of the water and blows his whistle (amplified by the microphone) to start the session. The bowl gradually fills and eventually sinks.

When it hits the bottom of the jar, the whistle goes off again. End of session – typically about 20-25 seconds.

Below, the judges listen to two birds each, indicating the number of times each sings while extending their fingers.

Watching them is like watching an exotic dance. On the second whistle, the judges mark the cards hanging from the cages with the number of times the bird sang in that round.

There are four turns, in which each bird must sing at least three times to advance to the next turn.

Good birds can trill up to eight times in a round. All around, bird owners lean against taut ropes to hold them back, shouting and hissing at their birds to encourage them.

It’s a wonder the judges can hear anything, but they do.

Gradually the numbers are reduced as the birds fail to keep pace, until a winner is finally declared.

Cash prizes can reach B30,000, or more in major competitions, and winning birds are worth hundreds of thousands of baht.

Other less common competitions judge birds on the quality of their voice, their clarity, or even the way they hop around their cages while singing.

Judging is of course very subjective, and heated disputes can arise between judges and bird owners. Everyone is an expert.

Other competitions involve doves rather than bulbuls, but these are rarely held in Phuket. Attending a bird song contest is a colorful and unique experience.

They normally take place on Sundays, so if you cross paths with them take a look. Bird owners are always welcoming and happy to explain what’s going on.

They will usually know someone who speaks English and will drag them around to help them explain.

The beautiful wooden bird cages also serve as a decoration for many local shops and homes.

The cages and birds that go there can be purchased from shops in Phuket Town, such as the one in front of the Honda Motorcycle Dealer on Bangkok Rd, about 300 meters south of the Suriyadej roundabout.

Cheaper, less ornate versions are sold in the large SuperCheap north of town.

There are several major bird song competition grounds in Phuket, although smaller competitions can appear anywhere on the island.

So the next time you’re driving around the weekend island, keep your eyes peeled – you’re bound to see a group of people, circling dozens of ornate cages hanging from racks at eye level, throwing a competition.

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