PARAMARIBO, Suriname -- Dawn has barely broken as a few dozen men carrying small bird cages gather on the cool, damp grass of the square in front of the president's quaintly majestic mansion of white clapboard and black shutters.
Paramaribo is a capital of sagging wooden houses and flaking paintwork, a small urban cluster in a vast expanse of jungle that stretches hundreds of miles south to Brazil.
Home to half the 450,000 people of this tropical nation, the city's life moves at the pace of the slow, tea-colored Suriname River that slides along its flank.
Soft, early sunlight starts to filter through the trees. The men carefully position stakes around the green to support the bird cages.
The air is filled with the frenzied chorus of daybreak, but the song of the caged birds is different.
These birds are trained to sing, and they are here to compete.
Test of skills
Every Sunday, the members of the Suriname Whistling Birds' League meet in the center of Paramaribo to test their skills. The contest involves birds competing in pairs to see which can sing the most melodies in 15 minutes.
As J. L. Jong A. Kiem, 11 times champion in the category of the tiny black picolet bird, says, a "melody" is a sequence that includes at least two tones.
The birds, all male, have been trained to forget the crude song of the bush and produce more complex melodies.
"In the wild the bird has a different song," says Jong A. Kiem, a slight, abrupt man who owns a pharmaceutical company. One of his prize-winning picolets flaps in its cage with dark, startled eyes as Jong A. Kiem imitates wild bird song: "chu-chu chu-chu chu-chu."
"You have to train it to sing a nicer song," he says, and whistles a falling "twoo-oo, twoo-oo, twoo-oo."
Two bird cages are hung a foot and a half apart in the middle of the green. A small crowd pulls in. Next to each cage stands a referee at a chalkboard on a stick. The clock starts and the referees lean in, heads cocked, faces masks of concentration.
What sounds to the uninitiated like seamless twittering is for them a series of well-defined songs. Every few seconds they add a stroke to the tally.
"You have to have a lot of experience to know what counts as one song," referee Ronny Calor says between bouts.
In an average round a good bird will produce from about 100 to 115 melodies. "There are very specific rules, and that always causes discussions: That was a song! No! That was not a song!"
There are disputes. In the middle of one round a competitor storms away from the crowd to the edge of the green.
He waves his arms at the judges and screams in angry Creole, the local mixture of Dutch, English and indigenous languages that is a vestige of the colonial era.
Then he gives a sudden, defiant laugh, snatches up his birdcage and stalks to his car.
"He couldn't understand how his bird could lose that match," association President Audi Zweers says with a shrug.
"The bird started out very aggressive, but then it seemed to lose interest."
Nobody seems sure where bird-whistling comes from: Some say it was brought to Suriname earlier this century by Chinese immigrants; others say it comes from the jungle.
But the contest was established in the 1950s.
"People were always skippin' for their birds, saying 'my bird's better than your bird,' " says Jean-Pierre McDessy, a retail shop manager who takes his birds to work each day. ("Skipping" is Creole for "boasting.") "So, they started having formal contests."
There is now a league of 17 clubs, with names such as Echo, Broko Dee (Creole for "partygoer") and Srefidense, or Independence. (Suriname gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1975.
In one of history's more poorly considered transactions, the Dutch accepted this corner of South America in 1667 from the British in exchange for New Amsterdam, now New York.)
Bird-whistling is indisputably a male-dominated sport.
There is one woman in the league, but she has not come today.
"It all starts as a kid," says Calor. "You get given a bird and then you go out to the bush to get another one. It's like hunting and fishing."
Edward Yngard, a tall, slim banker with milk-chocolate eyes, chimes in with a simpler theory: "Women have better things to do at half-past six on a Sunday morning!"
It is certainly not a hobby for people with busy lives.
Teaching birds to sing short melodies is an arduous process that requires at least two hours' daily dedication.
The birds -- mainly the picolet or the twa-twa, a drab bird rather like a brown canary -- come from the lush rain forests that cover 90 percent of the country.
They are bought from bush dwellers or captured by the trainers.
Back in the city, the trainers hang the birds close together to encourage them to sing.
"It is in the nature of a bird to defend their area in the bush," says Calor. "Those are the genes that we use to make them competitive."
The trainers play tapes of bird songs, the shorter the better (to cram as many melodies as possible into 15 minutes). They walk the cages around town to get the birds accustomed to noise and traffic. They bring the birds to the weekly contests to get them used to the terrain.
Once trained, a good bird becomes a valuable commodity, easily fetching $8,000.
At his home in a rambling suburb of Paramaribo, two huge dogs guard the patio where Jong A. Kiem's birds hang in little cages or fly in a larger area.
There are bird cages in every room, and the kitchen table is cluttered with golden bird-singing trophies.
"I know of people who have sold birds to get a new car. I have known of birds that have gone for $20,000!" says Jong A. Kiem. His most valuable bird is worth about $8,000. "I tape all of my birds' songs. That way, if someone steals one, I can go to the police and say, 'This is my bird.' "
Another enthusiast recounts how he smuggled a bird to a friend in New York.
"I put him in a cigarette packet in my pocket. I made lots of little holes. Then I fed him little bits and dropped water in. He didn't make a sound."
But as nightclub manager Kurt Leckie sees it, an expensive bird is no guarantee of victory.
"There are a lot of people with a lot of money who buy up all the good birds," he says. "They think they are going to win that way. But a good bird doesn't make a good bird person!"
The sun is higher now, making the grass steam underfoot. It is 8.30 a.m. and Paramaribo is quietly waking up.
The contest ends and the men scatter, carrying the little cages back to their cars.
The winners will be back in a week for the next round. Leckie, who came straight from work at the nightclub, is going home to bed. The rest are off to feed their birds.
Pub Date: 10/02/99