Birdsong Battles in Little Guyana

finch.pngClicking on Wedplan’s news item in the sidebar about “India in Queens, With a Caribbean Accent” took me on a short but vivid tour of Little Guyana in Richmond Hill, Queens. I’d like to visit someday to experience the neighborhood firsthand.

While chutney and soca sound like a significant part of the area’s aural landscape, I became intrigued by the mention of another kind of music.

On weekend mornings, locals bring their black finches to Phil Rizzuto Park, formerly known as Smokey Oval Park, for chirp-off contests.



Many local men keep black finches, which they engage in “chirp-off” whistling contests on early weekend mornings at Phil Rizzuto Park, formerly known as Smokey Oval Park, nearby on Atlantic Avenue.

An older NYT story about chirp-off contests in the same Richmond Hill park gives more details about this musical sport involving birdsong.

Tending them on a recent Sunday were about 50 Indian men from the Caribbean, each coaxing his birds to sing. The men were carrying on a tradition learned from their fathers in their home countries of Guyana, Trinidad and Suriname, where tending finches is such serious business that people sometimes bet on whose bird can whistle 50 times first.

Only male birds whistle and their song is one of courtship, a mating call to woo female finches. As noted, the whistling contests are serious competition. In fact, one minder interviewed had named his birds after boxers: Tyson, Holyfield and Roy Jones Jr.

Using the birds as boxers, at least symbolically, is a large part of the hobby. Now and then, two men placed their cages side by side and a kind of singing match ensued. Winning birds sing louder, faster and more aggressively. Other men watched the competition. When it became clear that a bird was losing, its minder removed the cage.

Owners of winning birds can bring in as much as $5,000, according to “Trafficking in Contraband That Sings,” which tells about the case of 13 live finches called Towa Towas hidden in small plastic hair curlers and smuggled into the U.S. on a flight from the Caribbean. There’s a demand for these birds in Queens because Guyanese immigrants believe that the best singers come from back in the grass in Guyana.

Listen: A Guyanese finch singing. Having 50 or so going at it in the park must be quite a burst of chirping and whistles!

9 thoughts on “Birdsong Battles in Little Guyana

  1. That’s a misleading article. It talks about Indo-Caribbeans yet the picture shown is of Sikhs; and the description of people in turbans also has nothing to do with Indo-Caribbeans. Richmond Hill does indeed have a lot of Indo-Caribbeans but it has a lot of Sikhs too.

  2. Could some of the Indo-Caribs be Sikhs? Know anything about the Sikh diaspora in the Caribbean?

    I know that Yogi Bhajan has quite a following in Trinidad.

  3. No. Indo-Caribbeans are not Sikh. They are Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or atheist. Maybe some have converted to different religions over the years, but generally Punjabis went to Canada in the nineteenth century, not to the sugar colonies. Indo-Caribbeans are not “exotic” enough, we don’t wear turban or speak a South Asian language. So the NYTIMES had to orientalize us, in an effort to categorize us.

  4. Indo-Caribbeans are not “exotic” enough, we don’t wear turban or speak a South Asian language. So the NYTIMES had to orientalize us, in an effort to categorize us.

    They should’ve just posted a video of someone doin’ the “Trini wine”, that’s pretty exotic. LOL.

  5. Thanks for the additional info. It looks like Richmond Hill has the largest Sikh community in NYC in addition to having a Little Guyana and the photos portray that but seem out of place in an article that is not about RH’s Sikh community and doesn’t mention them other than to note turbans. And I would agree that the article has an exoticizing/orientalizing tone to it, even sans dance video, just opening up with “One must first reconcile the sight of saris and turbans with lilting English inflected with Creole.”

  6. lemmie tell yuh. Tha picture is definatly Indian Sikhs and not Guyanese of any form. Guyana has absolutely no sikhs and we are a different people from traditional Indians. We are of indian descent just like jamaicans are african decent.

  7. Inspired by the comments here and another SM blogger who has written to the NYT, I wrote to the writer of the Little Guyana piece about the discussion here re: misleading photos. Kilgannon wrote back to say that he’d mention it to the desk and see if they can revise. Also, the photographer and writer worked separately on it, it seems, but I do not know how to directly contact the photographer.

    I’ll comment here or update the post if I learn of any changes or revisions.

  8. Yeah but if that Sikh couple was in Little Guyana… where is the deception? Trying to say that there are no Sikhs living in Little Guyana? If they are part of the neighborhood why can’t they be pictured?

  9. As mentioned above, if RH is home to NYC’s biggest concentration of Sikhs and also the Little Guyana community, then it’s hardly surprising that Sikhs would appear in some of the photos in a story on Little Guyana. I guess I would add to pind’s questions…If Sikhs can be pictured, especially in the lead/main photo for the story, why can’t they be mentioned? The story feels incomplete, and perhaps suggesting to some — especially with its choice of lead/main photo — that turbans are a significant part of the Caribbean Indian heritage, when there is no mention of “Sikh” in the story.