“Only a bird that is caught from freedom sings the best,” goes the saying. If you are lucky enough to own such a bird, then you can take it to the cafe where birdmen meet. If your bird sings well, you will be allowed to sit among other birdmen. But if your bird commits “mistakes,” then you will be sent away, for fear that your bird corrupt the other birds.
Today around 300 birdmen meet every weekend from April to August in one of fifteen cafes across Istanbul. Dating back to Ottoman times, the tradition is handed down from father to son, the latter being initiated to birdkeeping since boyhood.
The Turkish port’s geographical location makes it an important stop for birds migrating from Africa to Europe and back again. More than 300 species are currently observed around Istanbul, where lakes, forests, ponds and wetlands make for great nesting and feeding spots.
Turkish birdmen capture birds from nature, risking fines of up to TRY 500 (US$ 190) and keep one or two at any given time. Goldfinches and greenfinches are the most sought-after species for their prodigious singing. All are males: to show off their virility during the mating season, male birds develop more diverse singing styles than the females, who use singing more for communication.
Birdmen carry their birds everywhere they go, inside a cage folded in paper or cloth. Each develops his own style of wrapping and presenting the cage: from simple monochromatic fabric to crochet lace, from rainbow colored threads to little blue beads that are supposed to protect against the “evil eye,” a curse that may be cast on the birds by a malevolent glare.
Besides regular meetings at local cafes, four to five singing competitions are held each year at locations across Istanbul. As they wait for their turn, birdmen perform a series of warm-up rituals: they gently touch and swing the cages, or whisper, whistle and play cellphone recordings to their birds. A panel of four judges is in charge of listening and giving marks to the singing based on singing characteristics such as diversity, intensity or rhythm. A bird is allowed a maximum of three mistakes—for example a repetitive tune—before being disqualified.
But birdmen may soon be disqualified altogether. Turkey’s candidacy to enter the European Union, which openly bans activities that may threaten wild birds, is likely to call a halt for the practice of bird keeping. At the same time, Istanbul’s impressive urban growth—the city is supposed to host another 4 million people within 2025—is threatening green areas along the Bosphorus, causing migration routes to change.
Many Istanbul birdmen prefer to ignore this possibility. For them, keeping birds and listening to their singing is a sort of addiction that they could not live without. “I won't go out with my wife, it's my bird I want to be seen with,” one of them says, before turning to the cage, his words quickly fading into a beautiful whistled language that only his winged pet will understand.
Text and Photos by Maria Sturm and Cemre Yesil
Update: 28th of May
While assigning the title "The birdmen of Istanbul" to this article, COLORS ignored the existence of a documentary with the same name by Ali Naki Tez. As COLORS, we apologize for every confusion this might have created.
Note by the authors Maria Sturm and Cemre Yesil.
"We wish to thank Ali Naki Tez for introducing us to these amazing birdmen through his beautiful documentary film which was the very first visual production of the same topic. We want to emphasize that there is no intentional disrespect to his work. In this short text, we just tried to give as mush as information about the cultural phenomenon. Check out his film "The Birdmen of Istanbul“."