Southeast Asians Flock to Hear the Coos of the Wild

Times Staff Writer

This was the big one. The best and the brightest had flocked to this small provincial town--heavyweights every one, maybe an ounce apiece.

The third annual Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations barred-ground-dove contest was under way. At stake were bucks and bragging rights for the best coo in this neck of the world.

Lim Seong Koh, a 42-year-old coffee shop owner from Penang, Malaysia, settled in for the 3-hour round of competition. The question was: Would Hitler sing?


Hitler, Lim’s 3-year-old alto, sang his heart out--a perfect, full-throated, melodious wao-le-ke-te-kong , long and strong on the first and last syllables, over and over again. The little dove with the notorious name (“I like Hitler,” his owner said, shrugging) took first place among the altos and undoubtedly sent his $8,000 asking price soaring.

Class is class when you’re talking doves. Champions father champions.

Termsak Kananurak, a big businessman from the small Thai port of Pattani, knew he had a winner when he bought Talokapo for $3,200 as a chick two years ago.

“When he turned 1 year he began to emit an extraordinary coo,” Termsak recalled.

Talokapo has competed in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, and an Indonesian fancier once tried to buy him for $20,000.

“His coo has real international appeal,” the owner proudly noted.

Songs of praise never end in Southeast Asia for the barred ground dove. In Thailand, Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula, small bamboo or wicker cages swing from trellises and porch beams in the city and countryside. To begin the morning with the song of the little bird is considered a special joy.

“Beautiful, just beautiful,” cooed Manoch Sansnamart, an official in the Thai prime minister’s office who brought his bird, Golden Ruby, here to compete in the Yala contest, which was held earlier this month.

“You remember Nat King Cole?” Manoch asked. “Well, the very best doves have a big voice like Nat King Cole. It comes from here,” he instructed, tapping his diaphragm.

The barred ground dove is commonly called the Java dove in this region, or the Zebra dove. It stretches 8 or 9 inches from the tip of its bluish beak to the end of its gray tail, and it carries distinctive, zebra-like black stripes on its neck, sides and wings.

Birds Sit Atop Poles

In competition, the birds are placed in extravagantly appointed bell-pepper-shaped cages and hoisted by pulley up a 25-foot pole. Here at Yala, two large fields of a park were used for the judging, with hundreds of poles erected on each field.

Anybody who has spent the night in a cheap hotel in a big American or European city will recognize the sound of competition, an unorchestrated chorus of burbling, pigeon-like noises. More than 1,000 doves took part in the Yala contest, and from the ground it sounded as if each one was cooing like crazy. But trained ears knew better.

“I still have not heard a thing from my birds,” moaned Abdul Godi, a young farmer who had entered two doves. Abdul was squatting Asian-style, his knees nearly in his armpits, his head cocked. How could he hear one bird among hundreds 15 yards away and 25 feet up?

“Why, they’re mine, Sita and Tari, and I know their voices,” he explained.

The problem with competitions is that no dove, not even the great ones with consistent voices, sing every time out. The champion bird Pele, for instance, whose owner reportedly turned down an offer of $80,000, was not performing well at Yala. He was there, gazing upon the multitude from his 25-foot-high perch, but he wasn’t singing.

Pele’s fans said he was just having an off day, that he’d be back. All doves choke up if they’re frightened, which is why their cages are hoisted high above the ground, away from the spectators. They also sing poorly when they’re molting.

And they don’t sing competitively at all if they’re female. All the doves and all the owners at Yala were males. Nature provided the male dove superior pipes, but there is no ready explanation why there were no women among the owners’ ranks.

Judges wandered the field beneath the cages, listening for a dove they could not see.

“You can tell which bird is singing,” said Jae Long, a Malaysian judge in the competition, “and you remember the good voice. They’re just like human singers. They have tone and they have rhythm.”

So far, they don’t have agents, but there’s big money in the dove game. Sama-ae Isor, a breeder in the southern Thai town of Chana, claims to be the kingpin of Java doves.

“I used to be in the gold business,” he told a reporter on the terrace of his breeding farm. “Now I’m in doves. Every egg is golden.”

Sama-ae said his operation, more than 20 years in the making, brings in $400 a day, with just $20 of that going to cover costs. But Sama-ae is an expert, and it took a lot of trial and error to develop his breeding technique.

Now it’s almost an assembly line. He has three types of doves at work in the breeding cages: 40 mating pairs of Java doves, 260 larger doves used to sit on the eggs once they are laid and 120 even larger birds deployed to feed the chicks. While the nesting and feeding go on, the mates--and Java doves usually mate for life--go back to creating champions.

Knows All the Tricks

Sama-ae made himself an authority in an industry on which there were no books when he began. He knows all the tricks, the history and the myths.

According to Islamic lore, he said, people were breeding what now are called Java doves in Arabia in 730 AD. As centuries passed, the breed moved to Indonesia, then up the Malay Peninsula to Thailand. Southern Thai birds are now acclaimed the best, even by the foreign owners at the Yala competition. Indonesian birds have nice tone and good rhythm, it is said, but tend to be a little weak on the last syllable of the song.

That song-- wao-le-ke-te-kong --is supposedly audible more than 1,000 yards away in the still of the jungle, where the only Java doves left are those released by unsatisfied owners. That could be possible in a very still jungle.

More certain to be myth is Sama-ae’s insistence that the meaning of the Java dove’s song is: “May the one who raised me become rich, beloved and well known.”

Rich and well known, however, are often attributes of the owners of champions. Somchai Chaimongkol, an executive with the Central Bank of Thailand, was talking of Pele, the tested champion who had an off day at Yala.

“I could not afford that bird,” Somchai conceded. “The owner is very rich and he does not want to sell him. And he doesn’t need to. Only the rich can buy from the rich.”

But the banker could see the benefits of owning a Pele.

“That would be something,” he said. “Such an owner would be very famous in his city. People would come to his house to see the bird.”

A treasure of such magnitude is treated accordingly. Sama-ae the breeder places a small gold ring around a leg of his prize doves as a symbol of station.

And on the 90-minute flight back to Bangkok after the competition, a third-place finisher got regal and tender care from his owner who, oddly, operates an abattoir north of the Thai capital. The dove rode home in the passenger cabin, encased in a small red and black bag of Chinese silk brocade with air holes for breathing. The owner cooed to him all the way.