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50-part harmony

THE first thing I am aware of, on waking up, is birdsong. This starts with a few sleepy chirps, followed by faint predawn trills, which erupt into a cacophony of delightful sounds, a regular ensemble, as the sun arises. One marvels that these birds, street sparrows and doves, thrive where they live, on a busy city intersection amid tall monuments of slab and steel. What nourishment can they possibly find on asphalt and concrete, where grass is scarce if it exists at all, and only a few lofty palms balance on slender trunks their feather-duster heads? But thrive they do and are happy, too, sharing their overflow with me as they face each day in confidence and joy.

Caged birds can be joyous, too; especially when finding themselves in the company of their peers. Wandering one Sunday morning through George Town, Penang, Malaysia, I came upon an unexpected scene. About 50 Chinese gentlemen were seated on benches in the deep shade of a banyan tree in a tiny park near the waterfront. Above them, hanging from wire hooks from the tree, were about 50 cages, each with a canary in it, each bird with its head tilted back and singing lustily in rhapsodic competition with its fellows.

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Their human owners, rapt and silent, some faces betraying a hint of a smile, sit this way every Sunday for an hour. Then, as the cages come down, a small prize is offered to the owner of the bird judged to be the finest singer of them all.

This is not the point, really. The point of the gathering is the sheer enjoyment of the birds and owners. To immerse a bird among its peers stimulates the maximum singing of which each bird is capable. And stimulated they are! No sweeter sounds were ever heard on land or sea than from these diminutive songsters, throbbing throats distended, these caged feathered dots of vibrant yellow, singing their little hearts out in noncoerced joy.

I am sure that there are plenty of canary fanciers and canary owners in America who might like to get together, hang their birds in a communal tree in some city park or village square, and then just sit back and enjoy. And in such a simple, uncommercial, spontaneous, and lovely way! If it is possible in Penang, then it is possible anywhere, yes?

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