Early morning in Peking: a time for exercise and walking the bird

The songbird, not the dog, is man's best friend in Peking. Since government purges have left the city almost dogless, it is a common early-morning sight to see old men swinging a cage in either hand as they take their birds ``for a walk'' in a local park.

They strap the cages, hooded with blue canvas covers, to the backs of their bicycles before heading home after their daily exercise.

Pet-keeping was attacked as bourgeois during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution and some families even had their goldfish bowls smashed by the authoritarian Red Guards.

Dogs that survived were hounded out of the capital in late 1983, when hundreds of animals were destroyed after dogs in the city were banned to combat rabies.

Today only a few foreign residents keep dogs. Those are usually kept behind closed doors, and always walked on a leash. Although the authorities oppose dogs in Peking, bird-keeping is recognized as an ancient and harmless pleasure.

Once a hobby of the court eunuchs and the leisured sons of mandarins during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), songbirds today provide companionship to tens of thousands of people in the city.

The Peking press says an estimated 50,000 people in the capital keep pet songbirds.

The small yellow finch known as the ``jade bird'' costs around $11, almost half a month's wage for an average Chinese worker.

Other songbirds are offered for as little as about $1. Rare varieties of lark, said to be able to imitate dozens of different sounds, cost more than $70. Some can even copy the cries of other animals.

One old man in east Peking's Ritan Park said he liked the company his birds provided. Sitting on a park bench, dressed in the traditional Mao jacket and padded blue trousers, he said his children were grown up and out on their own. ``My birds are my companions. When they sing I feel as if they are talking to me,'' he said.

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