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In Taiwan's psychic world, white sparrows trump Paul the Octopus

2010/07/19 19:07:01

Paul the Octopus captivated the world with its accurate World Cuppredictions, becoming as big a phenomenon as the competition itself.

The eight-legged creature correctly predicted the result of eightout of eight World Cup matches, including Spain's victory in thefinal over the Netherlands, leading many to speculate about itsapparent divine powers.

But many fortune-tellers in Taiwan were unimpressed, willing toput their small red-beaked, white java sparrows that have long beenrevered for their psychic ability up against the clumsy Germanmollusk in a battle for world zoomancy supremacy.

Chen Mei-hsiu, a fortune teller at the underground plaza ofTaipei's Longshan Temple, says her sparrow named Big Lucky knew Spainwould be this year's champion long before the octopus.

"Of course he knew. We just didn't have the attention of theinternational media or else it would have been Big Lucky's name allover the news instead of Paul's, " said Chen emphatically, showing apicture of the bird pecking the Spanish flag.

Weighing only an average of 25 grams, sparrows like Big Lucky areconsidered a vital pillar of the fortune telling profession in Taiwanbecause of their omniscient power to predict anything, even if someself-claimed seers dub the practice as nothing but a big sham.

During a quick stroll through the underground plaza, cages of thesmall white creatures, advertised as "Psychic Birds" by their fortunetelling owners, can be seen everywhere.

"We can tell which bird is endowed with special gifts during thethree-month training process but we only select the ones that areobedient, friendly, and cooperative, " said Liao Ho-chun, anotherfortune teller.

Getting the benefit of the wisdom of these feathery forecastersis easy. Those looking for a glimpse into the future simply writedown their name and date and time of their birth.

After a brief consultation with the fortune teller, the seekersrecite their own names and ask their questions silently as thefortune teller opens the door of the cage and places a grain of riceover a stack of cards containing different pictures and messages.

The birds, their wings clipped, will then eat the grain of riceand proceed to pick out three cards to be interpreted by the tellers.

Birds, Liao insists, are more accurate than human beings, and anyincorrect predictions made by the birds are the fault of the fortuneteller for misinterpreting the message.

"The birds are so intuitive that sometimes they purposely pickout the wrong cards because they can detect the people seeking tohave their fortunes told are not morally upstanding, " he stressed.

Chen Ching, the president of Taiwan's Chinese AstrologyAssociation, also touted the power of the sparrow, saying that oncethe trainer has successfully "opened the minds" of the bird, "thebird can see into the past and the future."

When asked for details of the training process, however Chenpaused, lowered his voice and slowly said, "now that's top secret."

Kevin Wang, a 42-year-old public relations manager, swears by thedivination of the birds and credits one of them with saving his life.

"A few years ago, I was confused about whether to marry mygirlfriend or not. So I consulted with a sparrow, " he recalled.

"The sparrow immediately said no and even warned me to break upwith the girl as soon as possible. Later I found out that she wasreally crazy and my life would have been ruined had I married her."

Not all fortune tellers, however, hold the birds' powers ofprediction in such high regard. In fact, some brand the practice agiant hoax.

"I can assure you 99.9 percent of the fortune tellers who claimthat their birds can see the future are big fat liars, " said KuoChi-hsiung, who operates a stall in Xingtian Temple's famous psychicalley.

"Those birds were trained to pick out certain cards and it is upto a fortune teller to make up a story on the spot to deceive thecustomer."

Kuo, a retired National Taiwan University law professor, saidthat when he was young, he used to train the birds throughfood-induced behavior modification and would then sell them to conartists for NT$20,000 to NT$30,000 each.

"Sparrows have very sharp eyes, so all you have to do is make asmall marking on the card you want it to pick out. It is one bigscam, " he added. Kuo said he felt pity for his deceitful cohortsbecause "they are accumulating bad karma by cheating people."

Another non-believer in the sparrows' power is Cheng Chien-chung,the president of the Chinese Wild Bird Federation, who used a singleword to define the phenomenon -- probability.

"As far as birds go, a sparrow's intelligence is considered inthe lower to middle range. It is safe to say whether it is Paul theOctopus or the Taiwanese white sparrow, their performance can beexplained mathematically, " said Cheng, a biostatistics professor atKaohsiung Medical University.

Cheng, however, does not completely rule out the power ofzoomancy, especially in birds, saying some hunters from Taiwaneseaboriginal tribes consider black bulbuls as sacred living oracles andrely heavily on the red-beaked black-bodied birds to steer themduring their hunts.

In return, the hunters often leave food on the trail as anoffering of gratitude for the bird's guidance, he said.

"The fact is, as long as we as humans give the world of naturethe proper respect, we will discover many amazing wonders that areboth incredible and sometimes unexplainable."By Jenny W. HsuCNA Staff ReporterPhoto Nos. 45-46