Belgian birdsong

The song of the male chaffinch is worth a fortune

For many people, Belgium is symbolised by the Manneken Pis – a statue of a young man relieving himself in public. Other things that people know about Belgium are its top-quality chocolate (pralines were invented there in 1912), its diamond industry, its waffles and its beers, with Belgian Trappist monks brewing world-class beer since the Middle Ages. You might also know about “moules et frites”, which is a lip-smacking snack of mussels and fries – and the hit black comedy film In Bruges, featuring Ralph Fiennes and Colin Farrell. Online pokies fans will be interested to know that the Belgian Gaming Technology company boasts Europe’s largest pokies warehouse – and that Belgium has the only gambling game featuring songbirds.

A folk sport for the birds

Vinkensport (“finch sport”) or vinkenzetting (“finch sitting) is a type of sports betting where gamblers bet on which of a group of male chaffinches will make the most bird calls in one hour, and compete for the highest number of bird calls in an hour. The sport mainly takes place in Belgium’s Flanders region and finch-singing competitions have been registered as part of Flemish cultural heritage. The earliest record of the sport dates back to 1596 when Flemish merchants first held competitions. The popularity of this folk sport is much less than it used to be, but still about 13000 vinkeniers, or “finchers”, as the songbird enthusiasts are called, breed about 10000 birds every year.

Belgian birdsong champion’s chart

Ready, steady, chirp

Contests can take place in special competitions or the finches can “chirp off” inside a pub. The finches are lined up in small cages, one finch per cage, along a street or a wall. The closer the cages, the more calls there are, because the male finches sing to attract mates and to mark out their territory – they are not particularly interested in the competitive aspect of the sport themselves. A timekeeper waves a red flag and the contest begins. To score, a bird has to end their call with a “susk-e-wiet”, which is how the flourish at the end of the call more or less sounds in . Every susk-e-wiet is marked in chalk on a long wooden stick. After an hour, the timekeepers waves his flag to end the contest and the calls are tallied. A champion finch will sing hundreds of calls in one hour – keeping track of the calls must be an art in itself!

Sing a song of scandal

The noble sport of finch-singing has something of a dark past. In earlier days, the competition to win was so strong that vinkeniers would even blind the birds with hot needles, believing that the finches sing better without eyesight to distract them. It was only in 1920 that veterans blinded in World War I managed to get the practice shut down.

Other shenanigangs include doping and flat-out cheating. The owner of the legendary champion finch Schauvlieghe, who set a record of 1278 susk-e-wiets, was accused of injecting the bird with testosterone. The allegations were never proved.

In another sporting scandal, participants noticed that one particular finch sang exactly the same number of susk-e-wiets (725) twice in a row. When the cage was opened, the judge saw that there was no bird inside – just a miniature CD player! The cheating owner fled in a getaway car.

Animal rights activists are unhappy with the sport. The Flemish Bird Protection Society even accused finch owners of “brainwashing”. Apparently, they played recordings of “susk-e-wiets” to their birds for hours on end. The intention was to teach them the correct “pronunciation” – because many finch owners believe that Flemish and French finches have a different “accent”! Birds that sing “susk-e-wiat” instead of “susk-e-wiet” can be disqualified.

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