Hai Cuong feeds birds at the Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary
It is morning in the Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary in the Mekong Delta province of Bac Lieu. Flocks of great tit, western reef-heron, painted stork, and other birds raucously head toward Hai Cuong.
He is like a loving mother dispensing food to his hungry children. In his hands, he has crushed tilapia fish he bought from ponds nearby.
But he ignores the larger, bolder birds and makes a "túc túc" sound with his tongue to attract new arrivals who are understandably wary of humans.
The newcomers are western reef-herons, who fortunately come there and end up making it their home.
"It is essential to pay attention to the new ones to help them get along with the flock," Cuong explains, "or else they will be distressed and refuse to eat."
"Besides, the larger birds will fight off the others if there is not enough food. In this case, the victims will be the weaker ones."
"At first they are all timid and reserved, but after knowing each other and me they become assertive," Cuong, who has been dubbed "˜the No. 1 bird man' in the Mekong Delta, says.
"Each bird sanctuary is like a society where birds are not too different from humans if they are treated well."
After spending more than 20 years with wild birds, Cuong knows all about the disposition of each species of bird.
Now thousands of birds that have fallen to his charms live in the several bird sanctuaries that exist in the large area from Ca Mau on the southern tip to Tien Giang near Ho Chi Minh City.
But he was not the one to come up with the idea of enticing birds to the sanctuaries and nature reserves, he admits.
"A couple [named] Tu Liem and Le Thi Lieu from Ca Mau were the initiators."
Ca Mau Province is the proud home to a bird sanctuary right in the middle of its capital city.
The Ca Mau Bird Sanctuary was created from scratch in the late 1990's by Lieu, who had no ornithological knowledge and was guided in her efforts by the Vietnamese idiom "Ä‘ất lành chim Ä‘ậu" (literally "where the land is good, birds reside" though it refers actually to people).
Fifteen years ago she was director of the May 19th Ca Mau Forestry Park, which is now the Ca Mau Cultural Park. She initiated a project to set up a bird sanctuary there for research and tourism purposes.
It housed birds whose wings were clipped to prevent them from flying.
Lieu says the sanctuary's birds would often share food with migratory birds arriving from other places, persuading her to look for ways to keep them back.
Striking a gong to announce meal times did help attract the birds in the vicinity but clearly distance was a major factor in this.
They then considered feeding them food mixed with ground coffee like pigeon breeders do to keep the birds addicted.
But Cuong opposed the idea, saying: "That is a way to get the birds addicted rather establish a bird sanctuary.
"There is no better or more sustainable way to attract the birds than treating them well."
Gradually, the wild birds began to nest in the park. Two years later the practice of clipping wings was stopped, and, unlike their parents, the next generation of birds became free to fly away. They would mostly return later, often with their mate.
Everytime the birds left the park and were poisoned or injured, and returned to die, the Forestry Park's authority had to make report to Pham Huu Liem (or Tu Liem Lieu's husband), who was then the director of Minh Hai Province's (which was later bifurcated into Ca Mau and Bac Lieu provinces) Forestry Department.
When the park became too small for the birds after their population burgeoned, Lieu thought of moving them to a larger area nearby. This was in 1993.
To improve the place, cajeput trees were brought from U Minh forest and planted, and around 40 of the birds were taken there to lure more wild ones.
Cuong was in charge of caring for the birds,protecting them from poachers looking to steal eggs and young birds. Lieu was responsible for providing food for them since her department were unable to afford the cost.
By 1995 the old process had been repeated and the new generations of birds were flying free to find their own food.
But two years later disaster struck in the form of typhoons. Thousands of birds were killed in the two places, and Lieu, Cuong, and the others feared things would never be the same again.
Happily for them, many of the birds came back and their population again began to recover quickly.
In 1998 Lieu retired but to this day welcomes officials and tourists visiting the sanctuary she created.
Some neighboring provinces sent officials to Ca Mau to learn how to set up bird sanctuaries, but for various reasons their efforts failed.
They then sought the assistance of Cuong and his men.
Cuong himself now lives in the Bac Lieu sanctuary at the behest of its director Nguyen Trung Chanh.
He gets offers of work from ecotourism sites and resorts, but he is not interested.
The bird man is happy to live among his birds: "Birds are as loyal and faithful as humans. If we treat them well, they will never leave us."
With its natural saltwater marsh-forest ecosystem and 19 hectares of dense forest, the Bac Lieu Bird Sanctuary is home to around 46 species of birds, some of which like the painted stork and small king cormorant are endangered.
It also has 58 species of fish, seven kinds of amphibians, 10 mammals, and eight reptiles.
It is a key habitat for several water birds, especially the teal, stork, heron, night heron, and cormorant.
Now some 40,000 birds live and nest there, mostly during the rainy season between May and October.
It has been an important bird habitat for nearly a century.