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.
Yet most of the men gathered for a recent contest in the leafy neighborhood of Paşabahçe on Istanbul’s Asian side were keepers of greenfinches (florya) – more challenging to train to sing, but also more tuneful.
“It’s a bird that can imitate, mimic,” explained Nedim Kasap, a 60-year-old retired merchant taking part in the contest.
“Because it imitates, it changes the sound within itself and beautifies it . . .” Kasap continued. “It’s like an ocean. You won’t be able to find all that it hides within itself, all that it hides inside its brain.”
To train the greenfinches to sing, owners walk with them in public places – mainly parks and forests on the edge of the city – and expose the birds to other birdsong.
Sometimes, if one bird has developed a particularly distinctive or desirable tune, the men will gather to try to encourage the other birds to imitate it.
The tradition is one of the more unusual expressions of a passion for aviculture that runs strong in Turkish society.
It also connects to one disappearing part of the city’s past. Finch-keepers generally agree they inherited their tradition from Istanbul’s old ethnic Greek minority, an unusually frank admission in a country where shared cultural traditions of Turks and Greeks are often a focus for nationalist tensions.
“We learnt about the greenfinch from the Greeks,” acknowledged Tamer Sevim, a 35-year-old finch-keeper from Paşabahçe. “The Greeks used to breed these birds, and the Armenians – those we define as non-Muslims. After they left, we kept it up and we are continuing it today.”
Istanbul’s ethnic Greeks, who numbered around 150,000 in 1923, largely fled the city over the course of the 20th century, particularly after a violent pogrom in 1955. Today only around 2,500 remain in this metropolis of 15 million.
Naki Tez, a filmmaker who made a 2012 documentary about the finch-keepers, believes the tradition offers insight into a more diverse era in Istanbul’s history.
“You can get a sense of how the city used to be, and the relations between the Muslims and the Greeks and Armenians,” Tez commented.
“They were both feeding birds, buying and selling birds from each other. It was a very intimate relationship, unlike these days . . .”
Finch-keepers generally estimate that some several thousand people – always men – still maintain the tradition. Most learnt it from their fathers in childhood.
Its observance is only semi-legal. Many of the finch-keepers catch their birds from the wild, which is banned in Turkey. Some, however, have begun breeding finches in captivity to comply with the law.
But such concerns do not discourage devotees. The contest in Paşabahçe attracted as many as 200 finch-keepers through the course of the day. Some brought their birds to compete; others came simply to listen.
Most agreed, though, that the tradition is dying out as young men opt for more modern amusements.
Kasap claimed that knowledge of how to trap, care for, and train the birds is declining. “This shouldn’t be done in the way some people here are going about it,” he complained. “Nobody is really trying to learn.”
One who is trying to learn, however, is 26-year-old Murat Turan, a medical technician and one of the youngest competitors in the Paşabahçe café. His grandfather first introduced him to finch-keeping at the age of six.
That dedication has paid off. Turan’s bird Muki won first prize in the contest. “It feels wonderful,” he said, as he bore a large golden trophy and his still-covered birdcage to his car. “This finch-keeping is a . . . beautiful hobby.”
Alexander Christie-Miller is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.