Michael's Dispatches

How to Catch a Bird without a Gun

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24 November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving weekend in America!  This is a good time to share something lighter than the constant war.

I’ve travelled to more than sixty countries, often spending years on end abroad.  Those journeys have revealed many fascinating sides of life.

Today I am in Laos, a small country thick with jungles in Southeast Asia.  Laos used to be called “The Land of a Million Elephants.”  There still are many elephants, but not like those older times.  One day in Italy, I was in Venice upstairs in a museum and saw a very old map of Laos.  It was a mysterious place illustrated by elephants and nestled between Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma and China.  Many names have changed since that old parchment was drawn.

This is my fifth trip to Laos.  The people are friendly and will eat just about anything.  I write these words just next to an open market where they sell bats, rats, wildcats and all sorts other creatures both dead and alive.  There were a couple of porcupines and many frogs.  Sometimes they will break the frogs’ legs so they will remain alive and fresh, but cannot escape.  Bugs, grubs and snake are on the menu.  One man said that a tiger yields about 12 kg of bones and the Vietnamese will pay $45,000 for 12 kg, but the police will lock you up for killing tigers or monkeys.  Some people keep dogs as pets or for security, but most of those dogs meandering about the villages are livestock no different than the chickens and pigs clucking and snorting about.  Some of the Hmong will not eat dogs, but they raise them to sell to Vietnamese who work here.

A couple of nights ago, I had dinner with a Hmong family.  They steamed flying squirrel with lemongrass, chili, garlic and onions.  It smelled delicious, and they also steamed some sort of wildcat, which I did not care for.  It was not a tiger but a small jungle creature that weighed maybe 5 kg unskinned.  I wondered if it was endangered or common.

In the villages, the simple things can be among the most interesting.   The traps can be ingenious in their simplicity.

The people here will eat just about any sort of bird and are experts at catching them.  The Hmong guide was taking me to a site with the ancient and mysterious Jars when we saw a birdhouse between two ponds.

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Along the way, a friendly woman was digging crabs from the mud.

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Laos is landlocked and these are freshwater creatures.

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She had frogs in the bucket.

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The birdhouse is actually two traps.  There are no trees around the pond, and so the bamboo arcing from the water provides a place for birds to rest.  It’s the first trap.

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The hunter smears glue on the bamboo branches.  When the bird lands, its feet become stuck.  The man uses the line to pull down the flexible bamboo.  He unsticks the bird’s feet and uses the bird as bait for more.  I’ve seen similar traps down in the jungles of Borneo.

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He ties a string around the leg of the bait bird, staking the other end to the ground, and then hides the bird under this cover.

And so now the bait bird is hidden under the cover and the man is concealed just close by in the birdhouse.  Looking closely, there is another line connected to the cover.  This line goes from the cover to the man.

When the hunter sees another bird flying near, he uses the line to jerk the cover off the bait bird.  The bait tries to fly.

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When the bait tries to fly, it flutters while its leg tugs at the string.  The target bird swoops into fight.  While they fight, the hunter springs the net.  If he were hunting today, there would be a net spread on the ground, but there are not many birds now because this is dry season.

The hunter puts the catch into a cage and waits for the next.  He can snag dozens of birds in a single day, and then off to market that evening or next morning to sell the catch.

Through the years, villagers have probably shown me a thousand ways to catch critters.  Nearly every way is elegant and simple, though there are more complicated traps.

And there was another trap nearby.  An electric line was strung low over the water, staked up by bamboo.  At the bamboo was a light bulb just near the water.  During night, the light is switched on.  Bugs bounce off the light, fall onto the water, where the fish will gather and be dragged in by the net.

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