Whenever she hears sparrows chirping in a cage, Ma Su Zan can’t help but shell out money to buy their freedom.
The sight of their flying and fading away into the distance makes her a little sad, but also satisfied that she has helped a fellow creature to be able to go where their heart and mind leads them.
“I wouldn’t like living in chains, so I cringe at the sight of birds in cages. I often free birds,” she said.
One of the traditional beliefs in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar is that people can gain merit in the next life if they free a caged bird or two on holy days.
Thus it is not uncommon to see bird sellers at temples lugging cages packed with birds on both ends of a bamboo pole slung across their shoulders. Some load a single cage on the back of a bicycle that they drive around to different pagodas and temples.
Some people say it is useless to buy the birds’ freedom, as they just get caught again by the sellers.
But Ma Su Zan does not care. She wants the birds to experience freedom, if only for a fleeting moment.
Thanks to people like Ma Su Zan, bird-sellers like U Tun Than can earn a living.
U Than Tun goes around Botahtaung jetty carrying cages that are crammed with up to 200 birds of all kinds, including weaverbirds and yellow-breasted buntings.
Amid the chirping, U Tun Than shouts, “Do you want to free sparrows?” to passers-by.
The 60-year-old grandfather lives in Dala, on the other side of the Yangon River. Every day he crosses the river with his caged birds, selling them at pagodas in downtown Yangon.
What U Tun Than doesn’t know is that some of the birds in his cage are actually rare species protected by law.
Carrying the cage on the back of a bicycle, he sells the birds so that he can earn a living.
Among the birds that can be found in U Tun Than’s cage are yellow-breasted buntings, which used to be abundant in Myanmar but are now a critically endangered species.
“I never heard that selling this bird is against the law,” said U Tun Than. “I sell birds to help people make merit and so that I can make an honest living,” he said.
“I am not killing them. I buy the birds so I can sell them to people who want to release them, so I don’t think I am committing a crime or a sin,” he added.
Formerly a porter at a train station, U Tun Than said he has been selling birds for about five years.
“This business isn’t that profitable, but I earn enough to put food on the table,” he said.
He used to sell large birds like common mynas and cranes in addition to sparrows, but now he only sells sparrows because the bigger birds are too expensive now.
Although he used to charge K1000 for three birds when he started the business, he now charges K700 each, he said.
“I have around 100 in stock. I have to spend K50,000 to K60,000 each time, which is high, but the returns can also be high at times,” he said. “Sometimes, I don’t make anything, but I always break even. I only suffer losses when the birds start dying.”
People of different ages free birds for other reasons besides making merit. Sometimes foreigners join in just for the fun of it. Some free birds as part of an astrological reading or for good luck.
Then there are those like Ma Su Zan who just feel sorry for them.
“I free as many as I can. I once freed some sparrows and had to pay K4000. I freed a couple of lovebirds near Inya road and had to pay K3000,” she said.
U Tun Than said bird sellers get their birds from brokers at Dala and Than Zay market in Lanmadaw township, as well as at Chinese temples.
Yellow-breasted buntings are migratory birds that used to be common in Europe and Southeast Asia.
In Myanmar, they are found at Indawgyi Lake and on the Tanaing River in Kachin State, Kalaw and Inle Lake in Shan State, Bagan in Mandalay, Nat Ma Taung mountain in Chin State, and Thanlyin township in Yangon.
It flocks to plantations and paddy fields, inland freshwater ponds, reed beds and grasslands.
“Wholesalers mix birds together. If a buyer wants a sparrow, I sell them a sparrow. Not many know the names of the birds. Some Thais even buy all the birds to free,” U Tun Than said.
The birds bought from wholesalers are kept in cages and fed rice and water. U Tun Than often sprays water on the birds when the weather is hot to keep them from dying.
“Although these birds are not targeted, they are among the birds that are caught,” said Daw Thiri Dawei Aung, a bird expert with the Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Association.
Conservationists said the global population of yellow-breasted buntings fell by up to 90pc in 2017.
She said that when the birds are caged, they suffer bruises from fighting with each other, and when they are released, other animals prey on them.
“We try to educate the bird sellers whenever we have a chance,” Daw Thiri Dawei Aung said.
The number of yellow-breasted buntings in the country rose to 500 in 2009 from 300 in 2003, according to BANCA.
An agreement to try to stop the loss of the yellow-breasted bunting and its habitat was reached by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 2017. As a rare bird species it is now protected by the Department of Forestry, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
Anyone caught catching, killing or injuring protected species faces up to three years and ten months in prison and a K1 million fine under the Protection of Biodiversity and Conservation Areas Law.