Culture Corner

Walk the Bird? China's Unique Songbird-Raising Tradition

You may regularly walk your dog, but did you know that in China many people take their pet BIRDS on walks?

For hundreds of years--as far back as the Qing dynasty--people in China have been raising, training, and fastidiously caring for pet songbirds. From sweetly warbling thrushes and larks to chatty Myna birds, songbirds continue to be popular pets today, especially those who have been trained to sing beautifully or, in the case of the myna bird, imitate human speech and even sing the national anthem. The most talented, well-trained singers can often fetch thousands of dollars at market. Doting owners take care to make sure their birds are well-fed, groomed, socialized, and get good exercise. This is why if you take a morning stroll through a park in China just as the sun is beginning to peek above the trees, you might see an elderly gentleman softly swinging a birdcage as he walks over to join his friends, who have already hung their birds' cages in the branches of a nearby tree, for some tea and a game of chess. According to songbird enthusiasts, "bird walking" (遛鸟 liùniǎo) is essential for keeping birds happy and healthy. The swinging motion of the birdcage exercises the birds' legs and helps keep them limber by forcing them to strengthen and continuously adjust their grip on their perches. While their owners relax and enjoy the park, the birds' cages are hung close to each other in the branches of a tree, allowing them to socialize, improve their singing, and enjoy fresh air and natural beauty outside of their owners' homes. Songbird owners insist that birds who aren't regularly walked become depressed; their feathers lose their sheen, they sit in the same corner of their cages, and they don't sing as sweetly. Bird walking is a way for the birds to regularly access the community and natural environment that they evolved to thrive within.

While most songbird owners sincerely love and care for their pets, this practice does have a dark side. Thrushes, larks, and myna birds who are raised in captivity are indistinguishable in appearance and behavior from those caught in the wild, and so poaching these threatened species continues to be a problem in China, especially as the birds' habitats diminish due to urbanization and industialization. Though the traditional practices of caring for songbirds show deep care for the birds' well-being and are far more humane than simply keeping birds in small cages within a home, the healthiest lifestyle for a songbird is still in the wild with its native flock, and increasing numbers of younger Chinese believe that the practice of raising captive songbirds should be discontinued in favor of focusing on preserving the birds' natural environment. Despite these issues, China's bird-walking tradition has helped urban dwellers continue to enjoy the beauty of local birdsong even as cities continue to get denser, and shows how traditional Chinese culture values close integration with and preservation of nature as essential for all creatures' health and happiness.

Bird walkers hang the cages in tree branches so the birds can socialize