Having dogs as a regular part of our family was due to my dad’s love for animals. Birds however, were his main obsession which you will get to know soon. During our kampung days, my dad included dogs in the family as they were known to be loyal guardians of families and homes. Break-ins and thefts of property were common in our kampung during the 1960s and 1970s. We had other creatures included like a couple of white mice that I brought home but my mom’s squeals when I played with them in the house and their subsequent disappearance from my makeshift cage, made it no longer feasible to keep them. Much to my dismay, cats could not be included as they would frighten the birds or even worse, eat them, so my dad would not risk having them around.
After my family settled in the new high-rise living in 1979, the birds came along as they have been my dad’s lifelong passion. Somehow, dogs were still added on later by us children and my dad just embraced all of them and walked them daily.
No matter which type of animals that came into our family’s life, it was still all about the birds when you see my dad. He was into it from rearing them the moment they were hatched, trapping them in the jungle to buying or exchanging them with fellow bird lovers. There was one that prominently stood out with him and it was the White-eye Finch, known locally as “Mata Puteh” (a malay description for white-eye) and the following photo will help you see why the small and feisty bird got its name:
I believe my dad gained a reputation as the “King of Mata Puteh” as he had several wins under his belt such as winning the first prize in a bird singing competition as shown in the following photo dated back in the late 1960s or early 1970s:
He rose in the ranks of owners of competition standard Mata Puteh such that he was invited to be a judge in such competitions. He had to give up taking part in the competition as it would conflict with his role as a judge but he just loved doing it all as it would promote a hobby that he loved. Here’s a rare photo of my dad judging at one of these competitions:
You may think that so much time was devoted to one particular species of birds but that was not all. There was another species called “Merbok” and I just learned that it is a Zebra Dove! This bird was like the `luxury model’ of all the species of birds at that time and there were stories about the Sultans (Kings) in Malaysia trading their Mercedes Benz for such top birds in competitions and there is even a town in Malaysia called Merbok, for reasons unknown to me.
My dad had an old friend called Uncle Henry who lived in an old shack up in the old Kampung Eunos and if I remembered correctly, the road leading to his place was Jalan Singa. He was poor and lived alone in a little hut that was at the back of another wooden house and it was the size of a small room. My dad would visit him regularly and brought me along and he and Uncle Henry would sit and chat the whole day about merbok which my dad had one or two. I believe Uncle Henry was his mentor and perhaps they shared one or two potential birds that my dad had invested in (rearing it according to strict diet and care). Here is another rare photo of Uncle Henry and dad with their merbok after winning the first prize at a Merbok singing competition:
I think no one will dispute it if anyone was to say my dad was “Birdman”. After all, his name is Robert and many of his peers, including mom, called him “Bert” which sounds like bird anyway.