A bird in hand is worth $$$

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He prods around a grove of castor oil shrubs, parting bushes and examining the ground, seemingly looking for something small and precious, perhaps dropped in a moment of carelessness.

After almost an hour of patient searching, he finally finds it.

"Bird droppings," he exclaims, "Show me a bird's dung and I will show you where to catch it."

Nguyen Van Quang, or "˜Quang nightingale' as he's better known, is an expert bird catcher. He has been catching birds, mostly nightingales for 29 years.

Quang is part of a thriving tribe of bird-catchers in Hanoi who cater to the demands of a bird-lovers in the city. According to Mai Xuan Mam, vice president of Hanoi Club for Pets and Plants, Hanoians are bird lovers. Not only do they love keeping birds as pets, hundreds gather along streets every morning to hear birds sing.

Once he has found the droppings, Quang expertly applies birdlime, a sticky substance to blades of goose grass and places them strategically in a castor shrub nearby. Then, he hides in the bushes, whips out his binoculars and scans the skies. It's time to wait and watch.

"Nightingales always take off and land at the same spots. Before singing or flying off, they make a mess. So it's easy to trace a bird once you've found its droppings," says Quang, who spent years learning bird-catching technique from Khuong Thuong villagers.

After a patient 20 minutes, a male nightingale swoops into view several hundred meters above, closes its wings and nosedives into a graceful fall, heading straight for the sticky trap on the castor tree.

Quang, who works as a bodyguard in Hanoi, earns US$250 a month, and supplements his income by catching birds along the banks of the Red River. On a good day, he catches three nightingales and makes about $80. Exotic birds like the White-Eye can fetch as much as $3,000.

For his second catch this morning, Quang uses his knowledge about bird territory division. "Each bird lives and breeds in its own territory, and doesn't allow others to violate its area."

He spread a net and places a decoy nightingale to entice others in the area. As soon as the nightingale begins to sing, the skies begin to ring with melodious tunes. "In fact," says Quang, "the birds are "˜swearing' at each other, singing to compete, and preparing to fight to defend their territory."

A few minutes later, another nightingale swoops down from the skies and settles next to the decoy bird on the net, trapped.

For his final catch, Quang traced faint bird tracks in the sands and found a female bird brooding her three eggs in dense bushes. "Nightingales are so loyal and faithful, it will take just five minutes to catch the male," he said.

The hunter transferred the female bird and her eggs into a cage, separated into two compartments. As soon as the male bird heard the song of his partner looking for their eggs, he flew in from nowhere and hopped straight into the cage.

Quang's knowledge of birds' traits and his bird-catching techniques helps him to not only catch them but also manipulate their behavior. Through binoculars, he observes his birds wearing rings around their toes, which he caught and released so they could develop their songs. He will catch these birds again after 25 days.

The nightingale has the ability to imitate the tunes of other kinds of birds living on the river bank. Closing his eyes, and listening to the bird songs, Quang can tell where it comes from the Red River, Quang Binh Province, the north or the central provinces, and even how high above the ground the bird is.

Quang said, "Though I can catch any bird I like, I only catch birds according to client orders. I think birds must grow up in nature."

"I'm haunted by the memory of birds whose legs or wings were broken in traps. Though people earn well from catching birds, ultimately they pay for the harm they cause," Quang said. "It is easy money but ill-gotten gains never prosper."

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