There to Here – Exploring the Guianas

There to Here – Exploring the Guianas

Continuing the saga of There to Here ... Join Nine of Cups and crew as we visit the Guianas ... French Guiana, Suriname and Guyana ... from the infamous Devil's Island to bird singing contests to Kaiteur National Park ... lots to see and do. Come on along!

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Bird Singing - Parbo's Unusual Pastime

It's early... just before 7am on Sunday morning and the coolest it will be all day in Paramaribo. Church bells chime in the distance. The grass on Independence Square glistens, still wet with dew. The Presidential Palace and the clock tower of the Ministry of Finance building stand as prominent sentries overlooking the park. Men begin arriving on foot, in cars, trucks, SUVs, vans, HumVees, motorcycles, and mopeds. They're well-dressed businessmen in casual clothes or burly, tough-looking guys with scruffy t-shirts and their baseball hats on backwards or just regular looking fellows … all with one thing in common … they're all carrying little birds in cages. We rose extra early to be here to witness Paramaribo's most unusual pastime … a bird singing competition. bird singing in paramaribo

We'd noticed that men regularly walk around with their caged birds. Bird cages frequently hang outside shops and a birdseed stall was always busy in the fresh market. We didn't realize it was quite as competitive as it is. We were unable to ascertain the origins of the bird-singing competition or why it has become so popular in Suriname. Some say it was brought to Suriname in the early 20th century by Chinese immigrants; others say it comes from the jungle. We were told that similar competitions occur in Belgium. The formal contests here were established in the 1950s. There is now a league of 17 bird-singing clubs in the Paramaribo area and they all compete regularly.

bird cage in paramaribo

This is a man's sport; few women participate. In some places, guys get up early to go fishing or to play golf. Here in Paramaribo, they display their birds and coax them to sing. We'd read about the competitions, but found it hard to gather specific information. After milling around a bit and asking questions of other onlookers, we found out that today was not an actual competition. It was a training session, but we were content to watch anyway.

birdsinging in paramaribo

Men of the Suriname Whistling Birds' League greeted each other cordially as they walked onto the green and chose places to stick in stakes that would support the bird cages. Some men had one bird; others had two or three. They hung the cages near other birds and the birdsong became increasingly louder. It's a territorial thing. Sometimes they use a favorite female to get the males in the mood.

encouraging birds to sing in paramaribo

Have a listen...

Though it wasn't a competition day, I researched what a contest entailed. It involves birds competing in pairs to see which can sing the most melodies in 15 minutes. A "melody" is a sequence that includes at least two tones. Two bird cages are placed 18” apart in the middle of the green. Next to each cage stands a referee at a chalkboard . The clock starts and the referees lean in to concentrate on the birds' songs. What sounds to the untrained ear like twittering is in actuality, a series of well-defined songs. Every few seconds a stroke is added to the tally as each referee identifies a melody. In an average round, we're told a good bird will sing between 100 to 115 melodies.

keeping score

Most of the birds come from the rain forests, purchased from AmerIndians or captured by the trainers themselves. The competing birds are all male. Their owners work diligently to teach them new, complex songs. Teaching is done by whistling new songs to the birds, an arduous process that requires at least two hours of daily effort.. The owners constantly play CDs for their songbirds to aid in the learning process. The tiny black picolet or the twatwa, a canary-size brown bird, are typical choices and they can be sold for as much as $3,000 each.

twatwa bird in paramaribo

After an hour or so, the men collected their birds and began to wander off. We went searching for a cup of coffee. Enough excitement for a Sunday morning in Paramaribo.

Dutch word for the day – vogelgezang – birdsong

Zoos and Butterflies in Suriname

zoos and butterflies We have mixed emotions about zoos. We've been to some spectacular ones like the Denver Zoo, for instance, and we've visited some smaller zoos in the Amazonia that were revolting. In all cases, the animals are spectacles, on view for all to see, and in enclosures. The type and size of the enclosures and the care given to the animals is paramount in how we rate the zoo. We passed up the zoo in Cayenne, but we were close to the Paramaribo Zoo and had the time. It's a small zoo, hidden away in a wooded area north of the city, accessible by a narrow, bumpy road with limited signage. Not many people visit though the admission is fairly cheap (SRD10/pp). It's an uninspiring place.

paramaribo zoo

It was a hot day and the animals were naturally lethargic … as were we. We were interested in the zoo because it specialized in South American species. No polar bears or kangaroos or buffalos, but instead tapirs and anacondas and colorful, exotic birds. For instance, we'd never seen a Harpie eagle in the flesh, but of course, his small enclosure made us sad for him instead of excited about seeing one for the first time.

harpie eagle paramaribo zoo

The anteater was out and about, snuffling for ants. The single anaconda was all coiled up in the grass trying to stay cool in his cage and the spectacled caiman was eyes-only above the murky, trash-filled waterhole in which he lived.

anteater paramaribo zoo

A lone tapir roamed his enclosure, as did a couple peccaries and coatis. Two river otters seemed to be enjoying their small pool of water, but they were hard to see. A few monkeys were playing in the trees behind the cages and they were much more fascinating than the caged animals.

tapir paramaribo zoo

Many of the signs had both Dutch and English descriptions. Some of the signs were missing. In other cases, there were signs, but the cages were empty. Most of the cages were surrounded in a fine mesh with a single bar in front to keep people away. Bad for photos and totally useless to keep people out. Unsupervised kids ran in front of the bars, threw rocks and trash at the animals and banged on cages. No one on the supervisory staff seemed to be aware or care. When I scolded one little boy for throwing rocks at the jaguar, he gave me a dirty look, threw another rock and moved on. No parents in sight. The jaguar looked unconcerned.

The birds were gorgeous, but there were several of them crowded in each cage. Photographing them behind bars is not very satisfying. The zoo was depressing, and we left.

birds paramaribo zoo

We'd heard about the Neotropical Butterfly Park and decided it was probably worth a visit. For some reason, we never feel quite as sorry for butterflies bred in captivity for display. We made our way south out of the Parbo to Lelydorp. The parking lot for the butterfly park was nearly empty and we weren't sure whether it was even open. It was. The admission price was steep (SRD35/pp) for Suriname. I doubt many locals get to visit.

butterfly park paramaribo

There were a couple of buildings to explore on our own before heading on a guided tour. The Insect Museum came first. Primarily concentrating on butterflies and moths, it gave the arachnids and roaches and beetles and other 6-legged critters their fair share of display place. I noted that all specimens were actually from Suriname which made my skin crawl.

insect museum paramaribo

Here's some butterfly trivia for you … “Worldwide there are an estimated 20,000 species of butterflies with roughly ten times more moths.” In Suriname, 1,460 butterfly species have been identified.

A small gallery next door had mediocre quality bird and animal paintings on display. Upstairs in the same building was the panorama with associated audio, touted as “”a hand painted 360⁰ panoramic view of typical Surinamese landscapes”. We were unimpressed, but then maybe we're getting jaded in our old age.

The “vlindertuin” was my favorite part … the butterfly garden. We were able to photograph several beauties before the guide corralled us for a tour.

heliconius paramaribo buttlerfly park


anartia in butterfly park paramaribo


blue black in butterfly park paramaribo

We didn't realize that the park also bred boa constrictors and turtles for export. We passed by cage after cage of constrictors and then a large area of caged white rats (boa cafeteria) before heading to the turtle hatchery. Honestly, we were less interested in the snakes and turtles and more interested in the butterflies, but we plodded along.

boa in butterfly park paramaribo


baby turtles butterfly park paramaribo

In another small building, we watched slow-working, bored ladies chatting behind glass while picking and packaging butterfly pupas for export to butterfly parks around the world. With so few visitors, you'd think they'd at least make an effort to look interested in their work when guests walked by, but instead they chose to ignore us.

bored butterfly park worker paramaribo

We were led into another room full of lovely blue morphos that had hatched a week or so before. The males are large and black with a contrasting metallic blue on their wings. Absolutely lovely. The females … drab brown and yellow.

blue morpho butterfly park paramaribo

New hatchlings gathered together in clusters, a form of protection … safety in numbers.

cluster of butterflies butterfly park paramaribo

We followed the guide on a wooded path where she pointed out trees and shrubs, but unfortunately the names were all in Dutch and she didn't know them in English. She led us back to the entrance building, thinking we were ready to leave. Au contraire...we wanted our money's worth and headed back to wander through the butterfly garden again.

julia in butterfly park paramaribo


butterfly bliss

All in all, a less than satisfactory day in the animal/insect department. Still, had we not gone to the zoo and butterfly park, we'd have probably regretted it. As Mark Twain so aptly put it … “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” With that in mind, we're glad we went.

Want to see more butterflies? Check out our butterfly page on the Nine of Cups website.

Back to the boat for a couple of chore days, but more exploring to come. Stay tuned.

Today's Dutch words – dagvlinder en nachtvlinder – day butterfly and night butterfly (moth)