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Richmond Hill bird owners flock to Smokey Oval Park

It’s Queens’ version of the Central Park dog run. But the designer dogs and their yuppie owners are nowhere to be found.

In a distinctly Richmond Hill riff on the popular Manhattan tradition, the pets of choice are West Indian birds and the owners are Indo-Caribbean immigrants.

On Sunday morning, about 25 bird owners flocked to Smokey Oval Park off Atlantic Avenue to provide their pets with fresh air and themselves with stimulating conversation.

As birdcages hung from tree limbs, rested on park benches and stood perched on wooden stands, a chorus of whistles mixed with human voices in the springtime air.

The gathering, which is intended to give birds a weekly dose of sunlight and fresh air, is as much a social occasion for their owners. It is replicated every Sunday when the weather is nice and occasionally attracts as many as 500 bird owners, participants said.

“It’s my pet,” said Mike Jiram, of Richmond Hill, who came with what he called a West Indian mountain canary. “I just walk it like a dog. It’s a hobby.”

There was a chill in the air Sunday morning, leading many of the participants to keep their bird cages covered with white cloth.

The assembly has its roots in the Caribbean, where participants said birds are taken extremely seriously. They said bird lovers have been coming to Smokey Oval Park since the mid-1980s, when the Indo-Caribbean population in Richmond Hill began to skyrocket.

“Back home it’s a tradition,” said Guyanese immigrant Ray Bush, who came to the park Sunday from Brooklyn with his finch, Sting. “It’s from back in the old generations.”

Roy Singh, of Richmond Hill, owns four bull finches, known to bird aficionados by their bush name “towa towa.” He said the Smokey Oval Park gathering is more laid back than those in his native Guyana.

“Back home we have competitions,” he said. “We see whose bird whistles the most.”

The contests, complete with cash prizes for the victors, include one in which the man whose bird whistles 50 times first wins the money.

“You have to train them,” Jiram said. “You gotta work your lips, know their habits.”

As their pets sing, the owners discuss everything from cricket to family life to whose bird has the best pipes.

“Everybody just comes to hang out a bit,” said Saleen Sultan, of Richmond Hill. “You only have three months when the sun is hot.”

The budding ornithologists on hand in Smokey Oval Park said their prized possessions, like themselves, were immigrants from the Caribbean. While some said they got their birds from pet shops, others said they looked forward to the twice-a-year auctions held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Newburgh, N.Y.

Meghan Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the USDA, said 50 to 55 birds are auctioned to the highest bidder an average of two times a year. The birds, which are seized by USDA and customs agents or found abandoned, range from African gray parrots to finches, she said.

“Once they go through quarantine and are found not to be sick, they can be auctioned off,” Thomas said.

Bush said he goes to the auctions looking for birds who can sing. But between trips to the auction and ventures to the park, he said he’s getting into a little domestic trouble.

“It’s just a hobby, but it’s taken seriously,” Bush said. “My girlfriend gets upsets and says I like the bird more than her.”

Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at TImesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.

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