A little bird in the hand

Folk taxonomy in Taiwan is marked by genericism. Rodents of all shapes and sizes are mice; the most diminutive of raptors ascends to the rank of eagle; and, bound by their spots, leopards are branded cheetahs (“hunting leopards”).

One such catch-all that has perennially confused me is xiao niao – literally ‘little bird’.

In my first few years in Taiwan, I regularly came across a kind of grilled game bird up in the Atayal villages of Miaoli County. Referred to by my then-father-in-law (and everyone else) as xiao niao, it was absolutely delicious and reminded me of quail, which I had tried a few times in Spain after I reneged on almost a decade of vegetarianism. In fact, I assumed the bird I’d eaten in Taiwan was quail, until someone corrected me on a visit to the village of Chingchuan in Hsinchu County in 2011, the subject of this post. Bamboo partridge (or bamboo chicken, as it is – once again generically – known in Chinese) is what the ‘little bird’ turned out to be.

A Taiwan bamboo partridge.

By extension, I then concluded that the mini fried eggs on sticks that one gets at night markets across Taiwan, which are ubiquitously referred to as xiao niao dan, must be from this same bird. Wrong again: These are quail eggs (as I had originally thought).

Three weeks ago, I made it a treble of mix-ups, when on my return from a bike ride around Beitou as part of the research for a travel piece, I saw a speckly brown blob scuttle through the dusk almost right outside the front door of my block of flats. At first I thought it was an impressively corpulent rat. (If, by the way, a ‘rat’ is a ‘big mouse’ in Chinese, what is a ‘big rat’? It’s all so confusing!) It was quickly apparent, though, that is was a ‘little bird’. It ran towards a drain next to a low wall opposite me where it sat pretending it wasn’t there, like a toddler who thinks closing her eyes makes her invisible in a game of hide and seek.

I immediately thought it must be a bamboo partridge, though I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it might be doing down here in the middle of the city. For those who have not come across them before, which I’ve found to be a surprising number of people, these birds are common in woods and thickets around Taiwan, usually at slightly higher altitudes. One exception to that, that I personally know of, is on the outlying islands (all of which are snooker-table flat) where they can be seen on the roads far ahead of you as you scooter along. Once you get near enough, they beat a hasty retreat into the bushes. Although they nearly always leg it, rather than taking wing, they can fly all right, and do so if you get too close, skilfully weaving away through the forest.

When I approached this one, she flapped and flew a few feet into the air but didn’t seem capable of much more, so I guessed she was injured. Either way, she was clearly vulnerable here in these back alleys where stray cats and dogs, not to mention reckless scooterists, can emerge from any given corner. I cut off her escape angles, scooped her up, and took her upstairs where I showed her to my younger son Felix and his mate Boggi Jr, neither of whom was remotely interested, mowing down innocent passers-by with assault rifles naturally proving much more of a drawcard than a cowering galliforme.

Victoria after she flapped out of my clutches while I was transferring her to the cage in the yard.

At first I kept her in the guinea pigs’ old cage and it was there, on the first night, that she laid an egg. Anxious and stressed as hell, she showed absolutely no interest in her ovum and, in fact, as she flit nervously back and forth, began to knock it around like a football. Although I considered removing it at that early stage, a Facebook friend advised me to leave it with her for fear that she might otherwise become eggbound, a life-threatening condition which I had never heard of.

Over the next couple of days, I was in touch with the Wild Bird Society of Taipei who eventually agreed to take the bird off my hands until they realised, thanks to a photo I provided, she was the other type of ‘little bird’. Quail are not native to Taiwan and she cautioned: “You can’t release it.” Even if it had been a partridge, this would not have sat comfortably with me , as I thought she would have little chance of survival, given the state of her wings and the fact that she wouldn’t be familiar with any of her ilk. Still, several people encouraged me to do so, pointing out the obvious: no one would know. In fairness to these friends, they were only looking out for me as they know how full-on my life is and that I already have a cat and two guinea pigs to deal with, not to mention my own primate brood.

Feeling I had no choice but to keep her until I could find her a home (perhaps even the original owner as it was now obvious she has escaped from somewhere), I set about fashioning a cage in the small strip of yard I have behind my bedroom. I should explain: I live in one of the many illegal rooftop flats that Taipei City pledged to do away with eons ago. My tinglou, as it is known in Chinese, is atop a kind of building is known as a gongyu, an old block with no lift, double-sided, so that the front house numbers are 14 and 16 and the back 14-1 and 16-1. My landlord lives round the other side, and every week, I wrench my way through a tangle of bikes in the communal area in the middle of the building to get to a gate that lets me through to that side when I go to give her the rent. (She prefers cash in hand.)

Across the narrow hallway from my place is a large rooftop garden that is shared by several elderly residents of the 14-1 half of our side. They’ve really turned it into a nice space, growing lots of attractive plants and flowers, and vegetables, too. My space – no more than a couple of meters wide and four or five long – is behind an iron fence framing the garden. There’s a small gap under part of the corrugated fibreglass panels that support the bars, big enough for my cat Polly to squeeze under so she can go and explore the garden. When the resident family of bulbuls are not dive-bombing my embarrassingly pusillanimous pussy, she loves prowling.

Between this fence and the wall of my bedroom is where I set up the cage, using some plastic mesh from the old hardware store geezer round the corner – a really lovely chap who lends me his drill for free and always finds a way to help out. Over the first couple of weeks, Victoria, as Felix has named her, managed to get out twice and fly through the bars into the garden. Once the door was open and I chased her back, another time, I had to get one of the oldsters on the fifth floor to let me through to extricate the bird from a bush she had landed in awkwardly. One further time she got out and I caught her before she could bolt. I have now (I believe) secured the cage and it has been fine since.

Victoria’s cage. She hides behind the cardboard most of the time.

I got her bird food, which a local shop kindly gave me for free, and more recently some dried mealworms. I’ve also given her crushed up eggshells as these are recommended on various websites, but she doesn’t seem to be going for them. She’s still very skittish but, as I did for the guinea pigs who are also jittery prey animals, I created a little shelter for her where she can hide and stay out of the sun. She has started to come out when I put the food out for her in the mornings and even eats in front of me now. She seems to respond to my voice, but that could just be wishful thinking!

Having subsequently learnt that quail don’t generally incubate their eggs (a broody hen is used by quail breeders, but I haven’t discovered what happens in the wild), I removed the egg, as it was still just getting knocked all over the place. Don’t ask me why, but I decided to see if I could incubate it. There seemed to be next to no chance that anything would happen, as presumably the egg hadn’t been fertilised. But why not give it a go, just for the craic, eh?

I had a look online and all the ‘dead simple’ DIY alternatives to expensive incubators still looked like way too much trouble for a deeply unhandy man like me. I went with some of the basic suggestions and bought a cord and a lightbulb from the same old fellow. The final two components were a bowl of water with a sponge in it to maintain the requisite humidity and, most importantly – or so the experts would have you believe – a digital thermometer.

From the outset, it was a pathetic attempt. The optimum temperature for incubation for most birds is between 99.5 F and 100 F, according to most sources, with the ideal humidity given as 60 percent. My incubator was a model of inconsistency, veering from the high eighties to 106.5 F temperature-wise and from around the 40 percent mark right up to 88 in humidity. Stabbing holes into the box, then plugging them with bits of tissue, adjusting the position of the light bulb, filling the water bowl or just leaving it dry, I made haphazard attempts to counter the fluctuations. It was clear that it was a hopeless cause. Even if the embryo had been developing in there, it would surely be long dead. I shone a light on the egg, as advised, to look for an outline of life, but couldn’t discern anything. Another directive I had failed to heed was to turn the egg every couple of hours in order to prevent the embryos from sticking to the shell. I was buggered if I’d be getting up through the night to do that. I flipped it now and then when passing the bookcase where I’d set it up en route to the kitchen. It did seem a little heavier, more solid, but that was about it.

Then, yesterday, when I was utterly exhausted from several nights of insomnia followed by the online shift that I do for a hotel business in Europe, having just cooked and eaten lunch, and decided to try to get some kip ahead of dinner and my evening job, I was flabbergasted when Felix ran into the bedroom agape and declared: “It’s hatched!” And it only bloody had! Peering in the shoebox, I was greeted by a tiny, stumbling, feebly chirping creature, no bigger than a NT$10 coin.

Larry Bird as Felix has dubbed our new arrival.

I’ve got little time for religion or even spiritualism, but I have to say, this felt like a minor miracle to me. “Life finds a way!” I declared to my son with Jurassic gravitas. We were both grinning like ninnies.

Immediately reality kicked in. Like Donald Trump, I had not expected this – it was a jape gone wrong, and now I hadn’t a fucking clue what to do. I often feel that I’m bad under pressure: panicking, losing my patience and snapping at everyone but sometimes, when you don’t have enough time to think, you just act. For the next couple of hours, I rushed all over my neighbourhood getting together the materials for a brooder. Up until that point, I hadn’t even come across that word.

My attempt at a brooder. So far, so good.

“The bird is born!” I told the hardware bloke as I stopped at his shop for the red light bulb that I had seen recommended. He chuckled and shook his head, doubtless wondering if the eccentricities of these foreigners knew any bounds. “I don’t have red,” he said. Almost in unison, we looked up at his little altar on the wall, whose small god was flanked by a pair of candle light bulbs, glowing burgundy in the dim light of the cramped shop. He scrabbled about into a drawer beneath the altar. “Will that do?”

Lord knows if what I’ve come up with is going to work but (s)he has been eating and drinking and seems to be stronger in just the one day that has passed. The trouble is, I’m off to Spain in 10 days.

My menagerie is expanding. Who knows where it will all end? The whole thing has been a bizarre, stressful, yet strangely euphoric day.


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