The towa towa: the prize fighting bird of Guyana

Stabroek News
August 26, 2001

Every Sunday just after daybreak flocks of men carrying small, covered bird cages start to gather at the Ramp Road just off Mandela Avenue. They come on bicycles, on foot, in four by fours and from all walks of life. The gathering which has been going on for some 40 years is a weekly celebration of a little black bird called the towa towa whose legendary ability to whistle on cue makes it the prize fighter of the bird kingdom.

Esau, an accountant the rest of the week, received a phone call on Wednesday challenging his bird to a race. To race birds you put them side by side in their cages on a pole and the first to whistle fifty times wins the wager. The training and preparation needed to condition a bird to do this is akin to managing a boxer for a world championship bout. While the birds might look gentle and their whistle sweet, they are ruthless competitors whose value increases with every success. These little birds, a mere six inches long and weighing only a few ounces, are regularly sold for over US$3000. Just last year one towa towa was bought for G$1.2M and is now competing in New York where wagers on the bouts runs into thousands. Observers recall that the bird had an almost perfect "jab" whereby he made very short whistles in rapid succession.

This Sunday Esau is waiting on the roadside for his competition to arrive. He says he has been seriously minding birds for five years. He has been quite successful, preferring to buy partly trained ones which look like they have potential and then bring them to a higher level. Towa towas are mostly caught in Berbice in the riverain areas such as the Canje Creek as well as in the North west around Mabaruma. They are caught either with a long net or by putting a gummy substance called lamacherry mixed with sugar on a stick. When the bird lands on it their feet fasten. Only young male birds under one year are held. These are brown at first but as they annually moult, or shed their feathers, they first turn spotted and after two years turn the traditional full black.

During this time, if in captivity, they are undergoing intense and patient training from their owners to enhance their raw talent into prize fighting capability. First the bird must be taught how to deliver a clean whistle. In nature towa towas have their own wild calls but racing birds must be able to sing a uniform way which is commonly described as "peepeow." To achieve this short sharp delivery the owner has two options. They can put a trainer bird nearby the novice and let him mimic the call. The trainer however must be out of sight as the youngster can become frightened by the older bird. The other option is for the owner to buy a cassette which plays a recording of the clean whistle or "rackle" over and over.

The effect of this is to create a standard whistle which can be recognized in competition to be complete. This training can take months or years and is entirely up to the bird's ability to learn. A bird still brown might pick up the rackle quickly. Another might be a slow learner. But that would not preclude it from becoming a top quality bird. In addition the owner "walks out" his bird mostly in the early morning when wild birds and other caged ones are singing. This is to get the bird accustomed to the environment.

For many owners the gathering on the Ramp Road is a chance for their birds to simply mix and be comfortable amongst a crowd. Many might sing beautifully in the comfort of their own home, but when surrounded by a hundred of their own kind all whistling away they become shy and silent. A first visit for a bird at the Ramp Road with over a hundred birds rackling away must be a traumatic experience akin to attending a debutante's ball.

Just as with boxers, a proper diet is needed to build up the birds to racing shape. This includes wild or "bastard" seed along with packaged imported varieties and various tonics with added vitamins. For it is not just the ability of the birds to sing when on the stick, they must first physically intimidate their opponent by puffing up their chest, and going beak to beak across the cages - a sort of pre-fight eye balling. Size in this case matters and a good conditioned bird should be squat and full in the chest. Only when they realise that the other bird is not leaving what is for that time their territory, would a bird try to break down the other by singing against them.

Patrick Methland amongst his equisite cages behind Stabroek Market

By minutes to seven Esau is mildly concerned that his competition might not show up and considers whether to call his friend who arranged the race. The go-between received a "bind" from them both of $2000 which is basically a deposit forfeitable should they not show up on race day. Esau, knowing the race was on had in the following days given his bird plenty of sunlight and done a little ramping or sparring with another bird just to pep him up. He also gave him some tonic. This morning he had woken early and cleaned out the cage before covering it. The bird was ready to race.

Then Arrow, a tall, well-built man with a shrewd glint in his eye strolls by and says casually that it is his bird who has come to race. It was a kind of blind date and perhaps Arrow was looking to throw Esau off by surprising him. A little bit of sledging and time wasting often goes on before a race as the owners play their mind games in a bid to give their birds an advantage.

Arrow is well known as a big winner on the Ramp Road and at one time owned the $1.2M bird now in New York. He hands his covered cage to one of his seconds and goes off to find a stick for the two cages to rest on. Meanwhile Esau goes to his "locker room" (car) where his bird has been resting under the covers on the back seat.

The purpose of covering the cage is to keep them calm so they do not become distracted by so many other birds. Many get too wound up or "passionate" when confronted with the sight of other males and end up thinking only of physically intimidating the other bird, biting the wire and flying around the cage. They forget that to win they must whistle. If by nature they have too much passion but have a clean whistle they are usually employed as trainer birds.

A champion bird must have both a "normal passion" to intimidate another while "on the stick" and to be able to whistle almost on cue. Esau explains that many birds might be good whistlers from afar but the intensity of being on the stick can be very frightening and they simply freeze up. When he is buying a bird, Esau looks for one which is not afraid and still tries to answer back to the other. It should show motivation even though they might not win the race. It is like horse racing - a lot do with natural talent and the bird's desire to out whistle another. A good quality towa towa would not wait for its competitor to whistle but will just go ahead and finish its fifty. He says he has sold birds for US$3000 who have gone to compete at a place called Smoky Park in New York - presumably the Madison Square Garden of bird racing. Esau's wife is not too keen on his hobby always asking what he is doing getting up so early on a Sunday morning.

The stick is in place. Esau and Arrow use their bodies to shield their birds from the other's sight until the last possible moment. It is like a delicate dance as they back up to the pole and simultaneously they swing round and hook the cages on the nails.

A large crowd gathers around. Two men have been mutually appointed as counters and they watch the beaks to see if they move. At first the two birds dart from pole to pole raising up their bodies to their full heights, ruffling the feathers on their chests and rapidly flicking their tails up and down. They climb on the cage wire and look intently at each other. After a minute or so Esau's counter, staring into the cage, calls out "One... Two... Three." Arrow's bird comes back with a solitary "one." Then they are tied at four a piece but Esau's goes on a tear reeling off sixteen rackles to Arrow's eight. Soon it is 22-12 and Esau's bird flicks his tail a few times... 29 to 12 then up to 36-13. And strangely both birds go silent for almost a minute which seems like an eternity. The crowd starts murmuring. But Esau's finally gets going again racking up "37...38..39" right through to 47 where he pauses for a brief triumphant drink of water. Meanwhile the other bird looks agitated and defeated hunkering down on his perch. Finally "48... 49... 50." The final score 50 to 15 is considered an easy victory. A smiling Esau collects his $5000 wager from a not too dejected Arrow and the crowd wanders away. One spectator comments that Arrow let the bird idle too much between competition so it dropped back. Races are not always so straightforward. Birds can reach a certain number and get completely stuck. Other races last much longer and birds can make breathtaking comebacks to win.

After the race the winning owner says he is ready for any more challengers ("Bring em on!") as his bird takes his record for this year to 2 and 0. He had won a race over the river a few months back. For his part Arrow reveals that he had been keeping his bird by his brother's house and when he went to pick him up this morning, he noticed that it was beginning to moult and that it was probably not in top condition. The bird was digging up his skin and shedding feathers on the board. He knew that he would lose today. It sounds a bit like a trainer saying his boxer had bruised his knuckles a week before a fight. Interviewing them felt a little like being Larry Merchant!

Moulting is an annual event and a vulnerable period for towa towas. It uses up a lot of energy and owners simply cover down their birds for the couple of months it takes for them to generate new feathers. Then when it is over they can start to build them up again. More perilous is a condition called "beaking" when the bird's beak becomes soft. This can often be fatal for the creature as it is unable to eat any hard seeds. It is a major drawback to keeping the birds and large investments in time and money can be lost should a bird die.

At the back of Stabroek Market in a narrow Dickensian alleyway next to the waterfront full of jumbled up fruit stalls, Patrick Methland runs a bird stand which along with many species, sells exquisitely crafted wooden cages. While sacks of rice and papaya squeeze past on squeaky trolleys, he explains that beaking is often the reason many persons prefer to rear firereds, a brownish slim bird with an orange breast. These are easier to train and make a different "weet weet" sound. They too can race but are not as popular or valuable as the towa towa.

For towa towas, he says, it might take twenty wild birds to make one good one. He has been minding them since he was eight and still finds great satisfaction in training them. But he does not race. He says it would be bad for business for him to both sell and race as he must maintain a neutrality. He is a great believer in tonics such as vitasol and bitters which make a more powerful whistle. He also has a large collection of love birds and a beautiful white sparrow with a pink beak whose foreparents came from Australia but is now being bred here. All along the alleyway his cages hang up and the birds chatter to each other above the vendors selling their eddoes and tangerines. It is a perfect place for a bird to become accustomed to the noise. Although some more delicate ones do not care for it. He mostly sells brown towa towas which have just come from the wild. These sell for around $2500.

He says training a top quality bird is 99% patience and knowing when he is ready for competition. A bird will tell you when he is up to it. But birds who suffer a heavy defeat can become depressed and immediately start moulting. They may never be as good again.

Back on the Ramp Road most owners usually spar their birds against others or just hang around talking and gazing with a slightly incongruous affection into their cages. Ramping is the equivalent of sparring. Most birds remain amateurs all their lives and only a few get to actually race on the Ramp Road. There are other places in Guyana where bird lovers meet including Campbellville and up the East Bank. A lot of owners don't like to race their birds and prefer the satisfaction of just training them. For many their bird is a companion and a source of pride. Amir claims his bird, called "The Drizzler" for its speed, can beat them all. He says a cat once "break up the cage and the bird fly away and I call he back... I can tell him to jump in the water cup and he would."

But he does not like to race as it is against his religion to gamble. He says a bird needs good feeding and lot of sunlight.

Chetram who has been minding birds for 20 years is leaning on his car boot arranging stems of wild seed. He says this racing is "a good and a bad thing.. I had a streak of seven straight wins and it turned good people into enemies." Esau says Chetram is the top racing guy in the country but is hanging up his gloves because of the bad feelings. Chetram advises "you have to feed them good with plenty wild seed, so they can do the work." He has ten top-class birds at home. But having a stable of prize fighters can cause its own problems. Esau says that a good towa towa will always look to "play boss" of the house and if two are left alone they will sing all day back and forth until one is worn out. It is a macho thing and is extremely stressful on them so normally he keeps his birds by relatives so they do not fight. What might sound like sweet melodic singing is in fact verbal warfare.

By eight-thirty the birds have all gone home. Their big social outing for the week is over and their owners will now hang them up in their homes. The national bird might be the Canje Pheasant but for many Guyanese the towa towa has a special place in their hearts.