On a sweltering Istanbul afternoon, some 60 or so men sit in rapt silence inside a café, its doors and windows shut tight against street-noise. Besides the tinkling of tea glasses, the only sounds are those emanating from the mysterious cloaked boxes placed before the audience – the trilling of birdsong.
“This is an addiction, a passion,” said Metin Sertkaya, one participant in the city’s ancient but little-known tradition of finch-keeping.
On weekends in early summer, men young and old from different corners of Istanbul and from all walks of life gather to pit their birds against one another in singing contests.
Over the course of three or four hours, a panel of judges assesses as many as 100 birds on the strength, tone, distinctiveness and duration of their melodies. The birds’ cages are kept covered to minimize their levels of stress or alarm.
For novices, the bird of choice is the goldfinch (saka) – voluble and easy to care for, according to connoisseurs, but monotonous and predictable in its song.
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Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.