PARAMARIBO, Suriname — Meet Clint, five feathered inches of scrappy up-and-comer in the "no guts, no glory" world of championship Surinamese songbird competition.
One recent evening Clint, a bouncy reddish-black piculet, went through his paces on Paramaribo's grassy central square before its white wedding cake of a national palace and the big-bellied statue of a former president.
Clint--named for movie tough-guy Clint Eastwood--flitted from perch to perch. He and a dozen other songbirds in training, all confined in arched cages, loosed the joyful warble developed in years of coaching by the sport's passionate adherents--a clear pew-pew-pewing that peaks to a louder cheh-cheh-cheh.
It's the competitive equivalent of a swift right to the solar plexus for the piculet, a small, short-beaked relative of the woodpecker.
"This is a unique country, my friend," said Ronald Jong a Kiem, the president of the Trillers songbird club and a trainer of champions for 38 of his 56 years. "There's not much to do here. Instead of doing bad things in the street, instead of doing heroin, we do this."
There may be other nations where songbirds go one-on-one in combat, but none approaches it with the fervor of Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the steamy coast of northeastern South America now racked by rebellion and a sagging economy.
Doctors keep piculets in their offices. Soldiers listen to them in their barracks. Their songs cut through the hubbub at Paramaribo's metal-roofed central market.
Men--and it is almost always men--carry piculets in the dusty streets of the capital and on jungle highways inside their distinctive arched cages. Piculets are caught in the jungles that cover 90% of the Georgia-sized nation, and a wild bird can cost 125 Surinamese guilders--about $60 at the official exchange rate.
Some birds have sold for 10,000 guilders, or about $5,500, and friendly betting on matches can be fierce, said Jong a Kiem, Clint's trainer.
Harty van Trigt, a 51-year-old car parts salesman and bird enthusiast, said the males--and it is always males--are kept with their mates until the start of a match. Then their cages are hung about 20 inches apart, and the piculets are galvanized by jealousy.
"At that time the bird is full to sing because he has left his wife," Van Trigt said. "They are mad because they think the other one is going to take his wife--just like people."
Judges, listening intently, mark on chalk boards the number of times the bird sings. After 15 minutes the bird with the most marks wins. The battle can so crush some piculets that they will never sing again before another bird, Van Trigt said. "Destroyed completely," he said. "You can forget it."
Up to three years of training begins just as birds change their youthful light-brown plumage for a mature dark coat at about two years of age.
"The way God made them to sing," Van Trigt said, is "not a nice sound."
Their voices are changed through being placed with already-trained piculets or by playing tapes of songs, and the birds have to be retrained after their annual moult, Van Trigt said.
The intensity of the competition is reflected in the names: Clint, described by Jong a Kiem as "man of action" a year away from top competition; Muhammad Ali and Tyson, for the heavyweight champs; Flynn, for movie swashbuckler Errol; and C-1.
"For the vitamin," said Jong a Kiem, a local distributor for a U.S. pharmaceutical company. "Power."