The heat that still remains from the now extinct embers of the meat broiler are not enough to warm A., who, freezing, shrugs his massive neck between his broad shoulders. He walks restlessly from side to side, with his hands tucked away in the pockets of his blue and white fleece jacket. For his eyelids not to close, A. pulls them up by raising his eyebrows, that now look like two upside down “v”. It’s 6.30 a.m. and since midnight A. is standing outside the venue where the first Chaffinch Competition of the year will take place, in a Lisbon borough.
The idea of pulling an all-nighter came from two of A.’s fowler friends: C. and F. They wanted to mix business with pleasure. It would prove useful because, by arriving before all the other competitors, they would be first in line to enroll their birds in the best series, i.e., the time of day they compete. And it would also prove quite pleasant because, after another working week, they would be sitting around a rotisserie eating pork sandwiches, pork rind and pork belly, served with a lot of beer and good conversation.
The result of this social interaction can be seen inside the iron container which is about 20 meters from the rotisserie. On top of the garbage that was already there, now huddle some empty meat packages, beer bottles, juice boxes and a few packs of cigarettes nervously crumpled.
A. is exhausted. Unwilling to waste time talking, he just opens his mouth to regret the lost hours of sleep. “I’m too old for this, man.” Still, he doesn’t budge, waiting for the beginning of the competition. Impatiently, he takes out the keys he has in his right coat pocket. He grabs a discount supermarket card, which is attached to the key ring, and tosses it rhythmically, as if it were a tambourine. The metallic sound only stops when A. greets newly arrived competitors, who make a point to greet him. The diplomatic act is not yet complete, when the newcomers start using various formulas to ask him the same question: “Have you been here long?”; “What time did you get here, A.?”; “Look who it is! I bet you arrived pretty early.” A. answers them vaguely: “A long time ago”; “I don’t know, man”; “I’ve forgotten already.”
As he walks away from A., one of the men joins some fowler friends and remarks: “It’s the same thing every year.” It’s the best sort of praise possible to the man who was considered the best fowler in the last eight years.
A. was born 43 years ago in an old Lisbon slum, which was inaugurated in the early 60s by three families from Braga, a city in the north of the country, who decided to live there, not far from one of the runways of the Lisbon airport. They were quickly joined by families like A.’s, who had seen their homes in the slums of Alcântara and Ajuda be demolished in order to build Salazar Bridge, named after the dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. Today, the bridge is called 25 de Abril, in honor of that day in 1974 when the dictatorship fell at the feet of the Carnation Revolution.
Going to school was just a footnote in the life of A. When he was in primary school, the bell announcing the end of the school day was the perfect excuse to get on his bike and pedal as fast as he could. The destination was always the same: an abandoned construction site in a hill close to his house. As soon as he got there, he began to set traps for lizards and vertical nets to catch birds. When he was not in school, A. didn’t like to stay at home and seized the first opportunity to go out hunting.
Not knowing where her son was, A.’s mother was constantly worried. “Where is that son of mine?!” She would scream his name and A., high above in the construction site, would hear her calling him to come home. He would go to her immediately. “I would hear her. If she called me, I would run to her. I couldn’t ignore my mother.” There was only one time he crossed the line. As it was night time, when birds are already sleeping and lizards do not let themselves be seen so easily, A. decided to play football with some friends in a square near his house. “Come home immediately!”, his mother threatened. Too involved in the game, he replied: “I’m coming!”, with no intention of leaving the field. When he finally got home… “bam!”
Since a very young age, A. was used to the sound of birds singing in the morning. He started listening to his father’s birds – a celebrated champion of chaffinch competitions who, until A. was born, had never taught his craft to any of his seven children. A., the youngest of them all, was chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps.
The male chaffinch is a territorial bird. Each one has his posture, meaning his share of inviolable land. If another male tries to approach “and conquer his female”, the chaffinch that is already there will do anything to impose his statute as a possessive boyfriend. Physical violence is always the last resort. It’s at this stage that the small and seemingly harmless chaffinches can be deadly. But before advancing with the intent of striking at his opponent, the chaffinch has one last trick up his sleeve: singing. This singing forms the basis of chaffinch competitions.
A chaffinch’s singing is divided into three parts: tackle, strike and finish. The combinations are numerous, from the easiest to the hardest. Each chaffinch learns to sing watching those around him. For example: “bié, bié, bié, bié, tuiiiim, tuiiiim, tuiiiim, tuiiiim, tótótóchéu!”. The set of several “bié” represents the first part, the tackle. This is when the chaffinch draws the attention of his opponent, warning him to retreat or prepare for a duel. The strikes come soon after, when the chaffinch sings “tuiiiim, tuiiiim, tuiiiim, tuiiiim”. This phase consists of a series of attacks the bird launches on his opponent, like a boxer that constantly grinds his adversary. And then comes the final blow, the finish. In this case, “tótótóchéu!”. It is a clear sound, much easier to distinguish than the two previous ones. Some might call it a scream, but chaffinches are incapable of that. Its role is essential during confrontation: it determines who wins. In a human discussion, it is the equivalent to the person who can raise their voice the highest and says: “No more talk, I’m the boss here!”
During chaffinch competitions, they try to recreate this situation, ignoring the fact that the scenario is not a plain in Ribatejo, but a paved patio in Lisbon. The day is divided into 15-minute series, with five chaffinches each. The winner is the bird with the greatest number of complete songs performed before the five judges. If there is no finish, it doesn’t count. Big winners can get up to 230 songs in a quarter hour. It’s not for everyone.
“Whenever there was a competition, I’d go with my dad. He treated the birds differently. He was the one who taught me everything. ‘Look at the competition, you have to do this and that. You’ll see tomorrow. You give him a little bit of this and that and tomorrow he’ll sing even more!’”, A. recalls.
(A. is silent after this. Not because he can’t remember what comes next, but because he doesn’t want to reveal the method he inherited. In a conversation, excited about the topic of feeding his birds, he mentioned two ingredients ideal to strengthen the chaffinches, which go beyond the usual seeds. Immediately after, he asked us not to write what he had told us. “The others will start to do the same. It’s like that old saying: ‘If you teach them to bark, they will try to bite you!’”)
When A. was 16, his father died. Without a house, a car, money or other possessions, the inheritance he left A. were his chaffinches. He thought he should give one of them to his older brother, even if he was not on speaking terms with their father. “Do you want a reminder of him? Take one of dad’s birds… It’s all there is.”
With his father’s death, A. felt the time had come to become the best possible fowler.
“I think my father is the person I love the most in this world. Now I have children of my own, my mother is still alive, my brothers are still alive, but my father… This made me… Man, I don’t know. I don’t know what went through my head. I knew a little bit about birds and I started to go to these competitions. This is not because of me, you know? This is because of my father. I’m doing this for him. ‘Look, I’ve won everything there is to win, and I have you to thank.’”
Between his father’s death and the present, there was only one time A. left the birds behind. At 18, he was called in for mandatory military service. With no alternative, he had to quit his job in construction and leave for Vila Real, with a clenched heart. He had no other option but to leave his birds almost 400 kilometers away in the care of his mother. “Please don’t let my birds die! They’re all I have”, he implored before leaving.
When he returned, he moved in with his older brother, in a housing project in the suburbs of Lisbon. His brother owned a stable with a business partner, where he had some horses and calves. A. helped them as much as he could and every night he was in charge of the animals’ maintenance – and he also provided daily care for the chaffinches, which he picked up as soon as he got out of the army. One day, the horses escaped from the barn and A. had to go get them. When he found them, he saw his brother’s partner’s niece, who was also involved in getting the animals to the stable. “I found the horse, it was a black mare, I still remember. As we were making our way back, I turned to her and asked her name.” Her reply was quick and they started talking, each with a horse by hand. She was all smiles and he felt optimistic. “Things are going my way!”, he thought at the time. The next day, he told his brother the conversation they had had. Seeing A.’s enthusiasm, his brother warned him: “Be careful, don’t think this is just fun and games, you can’t play around with her. These people take these things seriously. They may live in the projects, but they’re not like that.” At 20-years-old, A. tried to reassure him: “I know that.”
In one year, they were married. In two years, they had their first baby girl. And then another. And then another. A. only got to fulfill his objective after three attempts. “I always told my wife that if we had a boy, that would be it. I just wanted to give him my father’s name. My father’s name was Albertino. And that’s my son’s name as well. He’s five (…). Albertino is amazing. He’s just a little rascal. He likes birds, but I can’t turn my back on him, because he’s not much wiser than a bird. If I give him a bird, he goes crazy.” Still, his son goes with him to the competitions and he’s even in charge of taking the bird. “He’s like: ‘Where’s my bird?’ He’s just great… When I’m dead, I wish he continues to be this way.”
At first glance, all the houses in A.’s neighborhood are identical. The buildings are all painted white and outlined in yellow, but that is unable to disguise the dark atmosphere. The buildings are all lined up, one after the other. Each one has its own staircase, which extends over four floors.
The difference between the houses begins with sound. From the top floor of one of these buildings, we hear numerous birds singing loudly and frantically. Looking at the balcony where the sound comes from, we see there are five cages covered by white cloths. It’s easy to assume this is A.’s house.
Inside, in the living room, A. opens the glass doors of the TV cabinet. Squatting, he takes out his trophies one by one. He knows them all, and he only takes one or two seconds to remember the year and the place they refer to. Taking the trophies without an apparent order, it becomes clear that, from 2006 onwards, the trophies this fowler earned increased in size and number. “Over the past eight years, I’ve won everything there is to win. I killed it.”
With a trophy in his hands, A. tries to explain the feeling of winning a chaffinch competition. “It’s an adrenaline rush, really… Because it’s not just a bird, there are many. In just one day, it’s possible to have 200 birds competing. And if you win, you become famous everywhere, no doubt about it… All the boroughs will be talking about you!”
All you have to do is talk with some of the fowlers in the boroughs that have the greatest number of fans to confirm A.’s theory. His name is known in all the boroughs where they have these competitions. “He’s amazing, he lives for this. It’s his only interest,” some say, and others confirm that “He spends all year preparing for the competition.” Another fowler uses a football analogy to illustrate A.’s status: “He is like Guardiola and Mourinho combined.”
It is no accident that we talk about coaches and not players. After all, the birds do all the singing and that can’t be controlled. Unless, of course, you are considered the best fowler of the last ten years. A. knows everything he has to do for his chaffinches to sing in the morning, in the afternoon and, with any luck, at night, a time when most birds are silent. And they sing as he wants: fast and effective songs, as befits the competition. These birds are “tough” and “sturdy”. If any of his birds is not deserving of such epithets, A. knows what to do: “I set them free.”
Of all his birds, there is one that stands out. A comparison to footballers Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo wouldn’t do justice to the capabilities of this chaffinch. His rapid and relentless singing, at a pace that even the older and more experienced fowlers consider rare, earned him the nickname “motorcycle”. This was the bird that allowed him to win almost all the trophies in the last eight years. “He’s a motorcycle, a true motorcycle… Bvvvvvuuuuuuu! When he starts to sing, he doesn’t stop!”
Since he started competing with the “motorcycle”, A. has received numerous offers for his bird. There were many times he was offered more than 500 euros. A. never accepted. There were even those who told him to put a price on his bird, but to no avail. Nowadays, the offers are starting to dwindle – the bird has been caged for eight years now, not counting the time he was free. So, he can die at any moment. But there are still those who dream about buying him.
There are many stories about fowlers who lost their temper when trying to buy chaffinches from A. One of them, delighted with one of his birds, would come to his house in the hope that A. would give in and agree to sell him the chaffinch. He begged, he screamed and there was one time he even cried. He had no money to buy the bird, so he offered him a Datsun with a diesel engine. A., who doesn’t even have a driving license, refused his offer several times. But the desperate fowler didn’t back down and insisted on buying the bird. Once again, he begged, screamed and cried. A.’s wife was fed up with the situation. She didn’t want to offend the neighbors and risk having them start to gossip. “Sell him the bird! €100, anything… just to do the boy a favor!” A. did as she asked. A few months later, that same bird was resold for €500 and was one of the stars in that year’s competition.
Even though most of the conversations about chaffinches are conducted in calm and social environments, for instance, under the archway of a housing project in Lisbon or in the bar of a communal association, the competition is always the fuel of every social gathering. In every conversation, the more fortunate fowlers praise their chaffinches and mock those who have less “worthy” birds. Those fowlers, wounded in their pride, react as they can. There are those who accused such and such of stealing his prized bird from one of the fowlers that was on vacation; there are those who accuse the winners of bribing the judges, so they take note of more songs than those that they hear; there are even those who question the fowlers’ honesty, claiming during the competition that, instead of a bird, the cage holds a tape recorder playing the same songs over and over again.
Behind his back, A. is accused of doping his chaffinches. He laughs at these accusations, but he reacts harshly. “They say I give some shit to accelerate the birds, but I don’t know how they can think that… If I gave that to the birds, they would die. There are foods that are used to warm them up, like hemp, but that ruins the birds! Their liver starts to fail. And I don’t want the birds to sing only for a year, I want them for several years. Would I hurt the birds? Of course not.” Upset by this topic, but never losing his cool, he explains where the rumors came from. “There are a lot of fanatics who talk a lot, you know? They talk louder than the birds sing. I’m not one to talk. I already won everything there is to win. Over the past eight years, I cleaned house. I don’t need this anymore. There are a lot of fanatics, man. I’m not one of them.”
To support his theory, A. recurrently recalls a decision he made in the 2013 competition. One of his biggest rivals, known as Fardinã, lived in a building right across from his. They were friends, but always kept the spirit of competition alive. They didn’t have to be together, as confirmed by the windows of each of their rooms, which were facing each other. In the window sills outside the two buildings, one can still see four nails on each side. It was there that A. and Fardinã hung the cages with their best birds. At a distance of 20 meters, they competed all year round. The objective was clear: each one trained his birds not to fear the other chaffinches when it came time for “the moment of truth”.
The competition between the two remained until the day Fardinã fell sick. He went to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died on January 21, 2013. “I was sick, man, I was sick when he died. The guy was in the hospital, I went to see him and then he died.” A. made a promise to his widow. All the trophies he would win that year would be given to her as a tribute to her husband. “I told her I was making her a promise, but I wasn’t sure I was going to win…”
The first competition of the year was in a borough east of Lisbon. He didn’t do so well: the birds weren’t performing to their ability and A. won a modest 13th place. “I was embarrassed. I’m very sentimental about people dying. I went to her and said I was sorry. ‘I couldn’t do any better, I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened…’ She said: ‘That’s not important. What’s important is who you are. The trophies don’t matter’.”
Luck changed on the following competitions. Altogether, A. won 12 trophies in three competitions. “I was very pleased. That renewed my confidence. I gave her 12 trophies, can you imagine? I was super happy.” The widow was surprised with so many trophies at once. She placed them in the house along with her husband’s trophies. However, she did something different with one of the trophies A. gave her. One of the trophies that represented 1st place, a piece of wood symbolizing a hand grabbing a bird, was just too important to stay in the house collecting dust. So Fardinã’s wife and children decided to place it in the deceased fowler’s grave.
“What I did for him no one else would do, man. Some guys would keep the trophies for themselves, they would never think of doing what I did. I don’t care about this anymore, I’ve won everything there is to win. There are those who think this is all I think about. But that’s them, man. They’re the ones who are fanatics, man, not me!”
A. repeats this idea many times, but it all falls apart every Sunday at daybreak. The alarm rings at 6:00 a.m. in his only day off. A. rises without hesitation. Lying in bed would be a mistake – Sunday is a day to train the chaffinches and test them before the fowlers from the other boroughs. A. leaves the room quietly, not to wake up his wife. He goes to the bathroom and washes his face. Back in the room, he puts on a casual outfit and his blue and white fleece jacket to protect him from the morning cold. After that, he goes to the balcony and, surrounded by boarded cages where he already hears the first bébéchéus and tótóchéus, A. opens the window and rests his elbows on the sill. Impatiently, he looks at the few people passing in the street at that early hour.
“This one is going to work. She cleans houses for a living,” he says pointing at a fat lady in her 50s, who is on her way to the bus stop. “That one spent the night drinking. All he thinks about is partying”, he points to a young man with a tired face and rumpled clothes from the night before. Then, he greets a thin man, who wears baggy clothes that dangle around his body at every step. “This guy is a sad bastard… He always comes out at this time of day to buy newspapers and bread that he takes to the cafe. In return, they give him something to drink and he loves that. He disgraced himself… He was a good kid.”
When the street is deserted, A. starts complaining about the weather, which is windy and cloudy; then he talks about Benfica, the football team with the most fans in Portugal. At the time, they were leading the national championship after winning against Nacional in an away game. Once again, he curses the weather, “that doesn’t help the birds”, who prefer sun and little wind. A. is not one to indulge in chitchat, so he’s happy to see F. and C. arrive in a van to pick him up. A. grabs two cages, holding them by the cloth that covers each one, and goes down the four flights of stairs. He gets in the car, sitting in the seat behind the driver and places the two cages between his feet.
C. drives the car at 130 km/h in the left lane of the freeway while talking to A. The crucifix attached to the rearview mirror shakes nervously with the rocking of the car. He tells him about the last time he and F. went catching chaffinches. In that instance, they travelled roughly 200 kilometers to Figueira da Foz, where the birds are usually “very tough”. “A., you can’t imagine. We set the nets way up high to catch one that was up there. You can’t even imagine. He was tough. We caught him five times in the net, but he always managed to escape. A., I never saw a bird escape that net. We only caught that son of a bitch after five attempts.”
The car accelerates at 7:40 a.m., with all the other drivers being left behind at a slow Sunday pace. C., who is 14 years younger than A., speaks to him with the enthusiasm of a child who longs for approval from his father. He turns to the back seat and waves his arms to better illustrate the episode, taking to the wheel only when strictly necessary. A., who has remained silent, speaks to warn him when he sees a bump in the road: “Look out, man. Slow down, there’s a bump in the road! I don’t want my birds to be shaken up!” He says this after smacking the driver in the head. C. slows down and soon after that he parks the car. They arrive at the first meeting point for training chaffinches.
It’s a few minutes past 8:00 a.m. and almost all the cars that are parked in front of one of the cafes in that part of town have covered cages on top of the roofs or hoods. In all, there are more than 20 birds that are there to be trained. In these situations, each fowler tries to put his chaffinch in the best position. For example, if the bird is still young, they avoid placing him too close to the others, in case he gets a real fright. Or, in case of a “tough” bird, if the owner realizes he’s finally beginning to sing, he puts his cage close to the others to take full advantage of that momentum. There are provocations, jokes and insults all the time. “I dare you to put your bird next to mine!” All cages are covered in white cloths, but they are not all the same. The less stringent fowlers, who are more interested in socializing than in competing, use any cloth, provided it is a bright color. Looking at these cages, we notice that each one has a different knot to hold the cloth. The best fowlers tie their cloths with a specific knot. “If a guy messes with my bird behind my back, I notice immediately, because nobody makes knots like I do,” says A. When the cage is well treated, the cloth is stark white, as if it had been washed for hours, and the hems are perfect. A., unable to imagine holding a cage that is not in perfect conditions, mocks the more sloppy ones. “Look at that, your bird looks like a bum and your cloth is all raggedy!”
The moment of greatest tension that morning came when A., C. and two other fowlers decided to put their birds close to each other, with the cages arranged in a single file. Not a word was spoken for ten minutes. We just heard the chaffinches singing impromptu, some more than others, without pausing. The duel was accompanied by the ecstatic fowlers, even if they remained in total silence. Whenever C.’s bird sang louder than the other ones, he mimicked and repeated the gesture of a punch, while his lips read: “Pum, pum, pum, pum, pum!” Still, at the end of the challenge, although there was no precise counting, all fowlers agreed: none of the birds had won.
Not having any luck, at 9:20 a.m., A. suggested that training should move somewhere else. “Let’s get going.” Three minutes later, the car was moving towards another housing project in Lisbon. Even before arriving at the café where most of the fowlers usually hang out, A., galvanized, announced with a cavernous voice: “We’ll make them tremble!” But it was in vain, because when the three entered the cafe, they realized they were the only ones there. A., revealing little regard for the fowlers in that area, asked for a coffee at the counter and, while he drank it, he shook his head in disapproval. “These guys are worthless, they like to sleep late!”
It’s 10:00 a.m. when the car leaves again, this time towards a residential area in the outskirts of Lisbon. When they arrive, there are no fowlers on the street, as it is tradition. The combination of clouds, humidity and possibility of rain does not convince them to train the birds that morning. A. knocks at a friend’s door and asks him to bring his bird. “Come on, I’ll teach you a lesson!”, he cries at his friend who was at the window. When he comes down, the cages are aligned once again. The silence is absolute – both from the men and the birds, who show no intention of singing. Discouraged, A. makes a gesture that shows he wants to go home. C. and F. oblige.
F. takes the wheel and drives at a slower pace, abiding by speed regulations. Perhaps because he doesn’t have to worry so much about his chaffinches at every turn, bump or pothole, A., again sitting in the back seat, seems to measure his words when he says: “This year, my birds are worthless. I won’t win a thing.”
Of all the features that a real competitor must have, from the obsession with improving every day to the smack they talk with their direct competition, A. checks all the boxes. Except for one: he doesn’t know how and he doesn’t care about bluffing. So, when he starts explaining his pessimism in regards to the upcoming competition, F. slows the car even further and C., sitting in the front passenger seat, lowers the sound of the radio, which was tuned to Cidade FM.
For over 20 years, A. has been working as a window cleaner. His work is not repetitive just “because there is no two identical windows”, but the range is not enough to ward off fatigue. “It’s hard, man, we have to be on our feet for hours on end, sometimes all crooked, and then all you do is clean, clean … But it has to be done.” Yes, it has to be done, and he explains why with simple numbers: “I have four children at home. Four kids. Only the eldest is old enough to work, but she can’t find work anywhere. She applies to jobs, but she never gets called to go on interviews. Counting my wife, there’s five of them, and she also doesn’t work. She retired at 37 because of her back. With me, there’s six of us. I’m supporting my family, so I can’t afford to fail…”
Three months until the first competition, A. is called to his boss’s office. As it is customary in these situations, he had good and bad news. The bad news was that the institute that hired his company had to reduce costs and decided to cut the cost of cleaning. The good news was that A. was invited to work by the hour in other buildings. This meant that his working hours would be more unpredictable and also more demanding. Until then, he worked from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m., and from 4:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., from then on he would work from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., with little more than an hour for lunch. Overtime would get his salary close to €1000 Euros. “Of course I accepted. There are 6 of us back home, I had to.”
The family had something to gain, but the birds had everything to lose. With the new schedule, he didn’t have the interval between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. anymore. It was ideal to take care of the birds and test them against the rest of the chaffinches. “How can I possibly continue to do what I did before? I can’t, I get home exhausted, and at night there’s nothing to be done with the birds, they don’t sing anymore. It’s all half-assed, man. Even my wife takes care of the birds, but it’s not the same thing, and the birds feel it. Don’t get me wrong, she does her best, but the birds know my hands, only I know what they’re all about.” F. and C. hear him attentively, but with some surprise. “That’s the way it is. I can’t trade my work for my birds.”
F. and C. didn’t comment too much on what A. said, perhaps because they were caught by surprise. They could only say with great gravitas: “Of course, family comes first” and “we have to do what must be done”. When they left him outside his building, at 11:00 a.m., A. said goodbye. After the handshakes, he felt the need to tell them: “But we never know! We will only know during the competition, it’s the moment of truth that counts!”.
At 7:30 a.m., shortly after someone says that, with A., “It’s the same thing every year,” he walks away from the rotisserie and takes his place in front of the iron gate and netting of the chaffinch competition venue – the first of 2014, on May 3rd. The competitors have half an hour to choose which series they want to participate in, paying €2,5 for each one. This year, a new rule was introduced – each competitor can only participate in four series. Two until lunch break, at 1:00 p.m., and the other two between 2.30 p.m. and the end of the day.
Suddenly, A. seems wide awake. Clinging to the gate, he discusses with F. and C. what are the best series for each of them. They also try to find a way to bend the new rule, asking F.’s nephew, who also spent the night there, to buy tickets for them.
When the gate opens at 8:00 a.m., A. takes the lead in the 40 meters to the plastic table, where they are selling the series tickets. He doesn’t run because no one is doing that, but it is evident that all fowlers are alert, although they don’t want to look weak. They compromise by taking long and fast steps towards the table.
“That’s it, we’ll make them tremble!”, A. brags, shortly after enrolling in the 1st and 2nd series of the day.
The infrastructure of this competition seems to be a tribute to the art of hustling. The walls and the ceiling of the shack that serves as a bar and kitchen are made from scraps of wood, old doors nailed to each other, plastics that are no longer in use and some zinc sheets. The painted parts look like the paint has been peeling off for years. The venue has four bungalows, built on four iron poles that have straw for a ceiling. Those who are in the lower part sit on plastic chairs and around wooden doors that, with the ingenuity of four sticks at each corner, serve as tables. There are two shacks that were built to serve as toilet rooms. Inside, we find all the equipment we would find in a conventional bathroom. Still, the toilet ends in a hole with no connection to the sewage system and the floor is covered with the same material that is used in children’s playgrounds. Even so, most men prefer to urinate in the various corners of the venue.
There are over a hundred fowlers all over the venue. Although the land where this competition takes place belongs to the municipality, everyone knows that the reason that brought them together is illegal. Not only does the law prohibit chaffinches from being taken out of their habitat, but also such competitions are not approved because they can be harmful to the chaffinches’ health. Still, few fowlers are afraid of the consequences – they guarantee the authorities are more concerned with the dealers of exotic birds, such as macaws and parrots that are sold for thousands of euros. No one knows for sure where this “sport” comes from. Some say “It’s over 100 years or more!” It is known, however, that this activity is also practiced in Belgium. Although there are no evidences, some say chaffinch competitions were brought to Portugal by the soldiers who fought in Flanders during the Great War.
At 8:20 a.m., A. already has a bird in hand to participate in the first series. He’s the first to arrive and he puts his bird on the “table”. A table is actually an iron sheet, supported by a tripod, which is 1.80 m high. Each series has five tables, displayed as the five dots of a domino piece. A. chooses the middle one.
Each series lasts for 15 minutes, but A. walks away from his bird after three minutes. He recalls an episode that happened a few meters from him in another competition. A fowler who appeared to be almost 70 was watching his bird’s participation with enthusiasm. “The bird started singing like crazy and the old man freaked out. ‘My little bird! I’m gonna win this, man!’” He was so excited he keeled over. When the ambulance arrived, it was too late. The competition was interrupted, but some birds were still singing. Except for the dead guy’s bird. “He must have known what was going on.”
A. returns to the table when the first series is at the 11th minute. They tell him his bird is not singing. Seemingly upset, he enters the venue, where normally only the five jury members and their president are allowed, and grabs his bird. He walks away hastily. “If he doesn’t sing, there’s no point in tormenting the animal.”
He returns shortly after for the second series, now with another bird. He doesn’t want to say who it is, but this time it all goes better. Despite the noise, not from the people but from the planes taking off from the airport runway, less than 500 meters away, the bird takes the lead with 163 songs in 15 minutes. “Now that’s more like it.” With nothing else to do in the morning, and with no more adrenaline that made him forget sleep for an hour, A. calls his nephew and asks him to come get him. He wants to go home and sleep.
This is when people notice he’s missing. The subject is debated always in circles of less than four fowlers, lest anyone listens to them and cause a problem. There are those who understand he wants to sleep, but there are others who don’t forgive his absence. “A. is not who he used to be, it’s over for him. In the old days, no bird of his would only do 163 songs in the morning. The ‘motorcycle’ is getting old, he’s gone. It’s time for some new birds.” The triumphant tone is evident and it lasts until lunch time. There are around 100 fowlers in the venue. There’s roast chicken for those who have seven euros to spend and pork and rind sandwiches for those who only have two. But most prefer to eat at home and spare their money. The shortage of cash is the reason why some say this year “only half the guys showed up”.
A. returns at 2:45 p.m., and this time he brings his son Albertino. Apart from the size, the voice and the tattoos, they are identical. They walk the same way, with their arms dangling back and forth. Their shoulders, a bit curvy, swing to the side of the leg stepping forward. No longer cold, A. is now wearing a t-shirt and shorts, showing off the tattoo on his left calf – a scroll engraved with the names and dates of birth of his children, in chronological order. It’s time to buy the tickets for the last two evening tables.
Until then, some fowlers offer him drinks, but he’s not used to drinking alcohol, so he only accepts three beers. Some try to talk to him and his son, laughing at the similarities between them. Nobody talks about how their birds did, with the exception of a 20 year old guy, who, although he had no birds, came to see the competition. With a face covered in piercings, he takes the opportunity to ask A.: “A., you’re like Porto’s football team! Your reign is over, you’re done!” He laughs loudly and shrilly, until he sees a dry smile on A.’s face. “I was just joking, don’t take it personally, okay?” “No, man, it’s all good,” says A., unconvinced, pulling his son by the hand and telling him in a poorly rehearsed smile: “Let’s get out of here, Albertino, this people are biased!”
He exits the venue, leaving his son with his nephew, who puts him to bed in the car. A. asks not to be bothered and sits in the shade of one of the outer walls of a stadium near the venue of the competition.
Shortly after, C. approaches A. and sits beside him. They complain about the bad day they’re having. The all-nighter was to no avail, their birds had not performed well in the morning and it was unlikely they would do it in the evening. “Fuck those birds, man, they don’t want to sing,” says C. A. gets up and tries to be optimistic: “Of course they’re going to sing. We’ll make them tremble! Come on, man, let’s go, if I don’t win, you will!”
C. was right. When they got to the 25th and 26th tables, the birds didn’t sing. A., who already felt they were talking about him behind his back, announced: “Come see this! A.’s bird hasn’t sung for shit!” This reveals equal amounts of irony and frustration.
But he doesn’t give up. The 163 songs his bird sung in the second series guaranteed him 4th place overall. So, he goes to the finals with the five best of the day. As soon as he knows he has access to the last challenge of the day, he hurries back to his nephew and asks him to take him home immediately.
A. returns to the competition 30 minutes later, at 7:30 p.m., just in time for the finals. He brings with him a cage and his son. He rushes to the table, puts his bird on the tripod which is farthest from the audience and waits for the competition to start. This time, he remains close by. The late afternoon sun hits him in the neck. Sunburn is a sure thing. He listens to his bird carefully, without looking away from the cage. He’s not performing his best, and that is shown when A. starts to shake his head. At the end of the 15 minutes, they tallied 95 songs. The winner was a fowler from Cascais, a newcomer to the Lisbon circuit. When he heard he’d won with 205 songs, he fetched his bird and crying with emotion, hugged and kissed his wife.
The day is over and so, by the bar, we already hear “We are the champions”, by Queen. The quality of sound coming from the radio outside the bar shack is sufferable. Next to the radio, there are 11 trophies – one for the most consistent competitor and the others for the top ten ranking birds. While the list of winners is being confirmed by the organization in the counter where they served hundreds of beers during that day, A. walks up to them and asks for a favor.
A. – Can you change my name in your records?
– What? And what should we write instead? Go join the others.
A. – Don’t be a jackass. Put my kid’s name in there so he can have a trophy. Albertino.
Minutes later, as the song from Queen is in its third rerun, Albertino raises the trophy for 4th place in the chaffinch competition as if it was his own.