With enough time, resources and passion, any hobby can reach a level that ordinary folk would deem extreme. Common examples include collectors of fine wines, fast cars and complicated mechanical watches, but not many can fathom forking out tens of thousands of dollars for a bird. Well, Dr Sam Peh can, and has for decades. His most costly acquisition was a $20,000 zebra dove.
Dr Peh collects and breeds zebra doves exclusively. The non-endangered species is native to Southeast Asia and while their greyish brown plumage doesn’t make them all that visually enticing, their pleasing mid-to-high-pitched staccato coos have earned them a dedicated following among pet owners and songbird collectors.
“Keeping songbirds was just something we did as young Malaysian boys raised in a kampung,” he shares. “Of course, I could only afford the cheap ones as a kid, but after I visited one of the competition grounds in Penang, I realised that this was something I wanted to do when I grew up.”
What he really wound up becoming was a urologist at Panasia Surgery in Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre, where he currently practises, but the call of the zebra dove was always echoing in his mind. After meeting a collector here, his passion was quickly reignited. He joined competitions and, with the help of his $20,000 bird and other topnotch singers (ranging between $6,000 to $8,000 each), won enough trophies to fill an entire room.
“At one point I became known as the guy who was willing to pay. People started coming up to me with offers for their best birds but that phase didn’t last long,” he laughs. “But you don’t always get what you pay for. People have paid similar amounts for a dud so there’s a lot of luck involved.”
While he used to source his birds from reputable breeders in Singapore, Dr Peh now prefers breeding his own – not for competing, but for fun. He currently has about 20 in his home but he can tell exactly which bird is calling just by listening.
“People breed race horses for speed and pedigree dogs for qualities and features that conform to international standards of that particular breed. But with these birds, it’s about the sound and nothing else. I don’t care how the bird looks. There was even a championship winning bird that only had one leg,” he explains.
In competitions, zebra doves are judged on things like pitch, tone and clarity. “A competition bird needs to be very diligent, because it has to call consistently for about three and a half hours. So ‘training’ will involve bringing the bird to the competition grounds at least twice a week to help them acclimatise. This ensures they will feel comfortable enough to sing even when the environment gets crowded and noisy.” Because zebra doves typically sing the most around sunrise and sunset, collectors with day jobs often hire people to bring their birds to and from the competition grounds.
He keeps the birds in an aviary measuring about 1m by 6m, and occasionally takes them out in individual cages to enjoy some time in the sun. The birds live on seeds, unhusked rice and supplements when necessary, and can live up to 20 years.
As far splurging goes, Dr Peh admits he’s far from the most extravagant. “I know of a collector in Singapore who has paid $90,000 for his bird. There are also cage enthusiasts because the cages can be works of art in their own right. They can be as inexpensive as $50 but can go up to $10,000 because they’re antiques or made by master craftsmen who are no longer around.” Such bird cages are always made of bamboo or a similar reed-like material to keep with tradition.
The hobby is a good way to make friends. “You meet people from all walks of life,” says Dr Peh. “I’m probably the only doctor in the community, but there are also hawkers and multi-millionaire businessmen. And now I’m starting to see more people in their 20s and 30s too.”
Three lessons from songbird-collecting
To buy or not to buy
Dr Peh had to find out what a good call sounds like, the qualities of a good bird and how to look after them. “It’s easy to get caught up in finding the best of the best but like all things that involve money, there are people who aren’t very honest. They can manipulate a bird’s sound with medicine or a piece of string tied around its neck.”
Competitions can be emotionally draining
“It’s the reason I’ve stopped entering them, even as a judge. People get very emotional in this hobby. If they lose they’ll be upset with you and so it’s just a no-win situation. There are also those who attend the biggest competitions in Thailand with a cheque book in hand just so they can make an offer for the winning bird, and these can lead to illegal trades.”
Patience is key to enjoyment
“Birds are like humans – some are easy to train, others more difficult. A natural talent can start competing from as young as nine months but I’ve also trained birds for five years before they were ready.”
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