For the love of birds
The 50th State Canary & Finch Breeders share their passion once a year
IN A WORLD full of dog and cat lovers, a bird fancier might be viewed as a quirky individual at best, a kooky eccentric at worst (note pigeon lady in "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York"). And even among bird lovers, there is devotion to specific breeds and no guarantee of mutual understanding among owners of different birds. So it can be pretty lonely out there.
Such is the plight of the 50th State Canary & Finch Breeders Association, a club trying its best to stay aloft as it tries to expand its membership of about 20, the same number as when the association (with roots in an earlier club born in the mid-'70s) started in 1990.
50th State Canary & Finch Breeders Association
When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
Place: VCA Kaneohe Animal Hospital, 45-608 Kamehameha Highway
"We used to have juniors, but they'd stay for a year and quit," said association president Joe Travaso, a breeder of canaries.
It's not hard to understand why.
"Canaries are very fragile birds," he said. "You can't play with 'em. You gotta be careful when you handle 'em. You cannot squeeze 'em because they cannot breathe and they get heart attacks, and if a mosquito bites their eyes or feet, they get sores and die."
This fragile quality made them prized by miners, who used the birds as an early warning system for detection of hazardous gases in the mines. If the birds died, the men knew they should evacuate, hence the phrase "canary in a coal mine."
"With a canary, the song is all you get, and some birds don't sing at all," he said. "It's very hard. You have to love canaries and finches."
BELIEVING in the power of love at first sight, the association is staging its 14th annual bird show on Sunday. Admission is free to those who want to view the birds, take in workshops on care and breeding, and enter a drawing to win a bird.
For those with young children, finches are a smaller, low- maintenance alternative to canaries, according to Fern Tomisato, a professor in the Culinary Arts Department at Kapiolani Community College. As a bird owner for eight years, she's a relative newbie at raising birds and acknowledges that finches lack the relationship potential of other pets, even other birds.
"People with parrots, because they respond to one person, seem to form a lifelong bond with their pet," she said. "But I run around so much during the day that when I go home, just watching (finches) flying around in their cage or hearing their song in the morning is relaxing.
"I raise African finches because I love their beautiful, beautiful, vibrant colors, and they're easy to take care of. You just put them in a cage, give them water and food, and they kind of take care of themselves."
That is, if you're not breeding them. If you want to see offspring, you also need to keep them plied with insects.
"To breed, they need a lot of insects in their diet," said Dwain Uyeda, who has been raising birds since he was a boy and now works at the Honolulu Zoo as a supervisor for the reptile section and petting zoo. "That's what they feed their babies, and if you don't provide it, you won't get any babies."
So his birds get a steady supply of mealworms and an occasional special of fruit fly larvae harvested from the fruit in his orange tree.
"You just sprinkle some yeast on 'em and the fruit flies come. Then you can harvest all you want," he said.
A passion for the small birds might be a casualty of the modern age. Travaso, who grew up on Kauai in the 1930s and '40s, inherited a love for the birds from his stepgrandfather and father, who hailed from the Azores, which along with the Canary and Madeira islands, is home to canaries.
"A lot of Portuguese guys raised birds. Back then, we had chicks, ducks, turkeys. We raised our own beef and stuff because in those days we didn't go out and buy it.
"We never had toys like kids have today," Travaso said. "We never had TVs, no movies -- but we had birds."
TRAVASO MOVED to Oahu in 1962, when he said singing birds imported from China and Japan were popular enough to be offered for sale throughout Chinatown, as well as the Kress store in downtown Honolulu.
In the mid-1970s he started the Honolulu Canary and Finch Club, which grew to 150 members before politics led him to defect. While some members took a competitive, profit-making view of raising birds, Travaso said, his mission has always been one of education and spreading affection for the birds. The original club no longer exists.
Travaso's connection with members of a similar club in Fresno, Calif., led to finch- and canary-judging contests in Honolulu, with trophies and ribbons as prizes.
Because Uyeda and Travaso have the most birds, they end up winning a lot, but Uyeda said he never takes the prizes. "I feel like it would be taking away from the club," he said.
"We have no money," Travaso said. "The only money we have is from dues, and that's only $15 per person per year. We only have enough to pay the judges' hotel or airfare; that's it."
THERE ARE national championship contests, and as a Fresno Club member in 1978, Travaso had a first-place victory in 1978, though he otherwise rarely competes, and air travel restrictions these days have made it difficult to move birds, including bringing in new breeding stocks.
Uyeda last entered an international competition in Santa Clara, Calif., in 2003. He won a prize in the African finch division, and one of his variegated fife canaries won first place in its category.
With a little bit of genetics and splashy palette of colors involved in raising these birds, they are an inspiration to anyone with an interest in genetics, and the eye of an artist. Uyeda said he's been asked to be a judge, and he's often tested when he goes to national competitions.
"The judges say I have the eye. I can look at birds and know which is better. They'll put up a couple of birds and test me, ask me which is better and why."
His aim is to one day have the best bird in a national show, although he said it's difficult for people from Hawaii to participate. Air travel restrictions guarantee the big competitions will likely never come to the islands, and the cost of flying to the Midwest and East Coast, where most of the shows are held, is prohibitive.
Traveling in general is not something to be taken lightly when there are birds left behind that require personalized attention, including special diets to enhance colors that can be anything from white to blue-gray to a near-fluorescent orange.
A carotene-based diet supplement, for instance, enhances reds.
"If you don't feed them right, they lose color," Uyeda said. "Just like the flamingos. In the wild they eat a lot of shrimp, and that's how they get their pink color. In captivity they don't get that, so you have to give them a special feed.
"When I travel my wife takes care of all my animals," said Uyeda, who has more than 300 birds, among them more than 130 canaries and about 75 finches. "We rarely ever travel together because of the animals. It's not something where you can easily pick up and go."
Uyeda said he also sells most of his birds on the mainland, where there is more appreciation for them. While his canaries will sell for $130 on the mainland, a show bird will sell for only $50 locally.
"It's a big thing all over the world, having and showing canaries, finches and other birds like parrots and parakeets."
What keeps him going is the excitement of seeing new fledglings.
"You put two birds together and you cannot predict what will come out," he said. "I've been doing this a while, so I can more or less aim for what I want."