There are all sorts in Taipei. Sharply dressed businesspeople, heads down, hands to their sides, trying to assume the most aerodynamic shape possible as they charge towards the MRT. Potbellied old men with their t-shirts pulled up, wafting humid air onto their slick tummies. Ladies – and I mean ladies in the most regal sense – with bug eyed dogs staring anxiously out from leather handbags. But even amongst this bustle of life, the duck man stands out as unique.
He is a short fellow in baggy khakis, with matted grey hair that reaches down to his shoulders. He walks to the pond near enough every day, which isn’t so strange, except for the fact that there is a clumsy train of waddling ducks and tottering toddler geese following him all the way to the water’s edge.
He is, I have come to learn, one of the Da’An Bird People, and he marches to the beat of his own drum. A drum that squawks.
Across Taipei are various parks, which provide a welcome escape from the honking scooters and trundling cars that terrorise the streets. You’ll find such green spaces constricted by roads or intercepted by the riverside bike path. The biggest and best of the bunch – Da’An Park, Sunshine Park, Huazhong – host their fair share of curious, mismatched wildlife. And, of course, those who travel to see them.
There’s a particular bench by the pond where I make myself cosy, half-heartedly reading a book and keeping an eager eye open for the duck man and his entourage. I’ve still got no real sense of what he’s doing, but I assume it’s his job to care for the animals so that they continue to bewilder and enchant visitors to the park. I asked him, once, if my friend could touch an injured duck he was tending to. He stared at us with the beady precision of a hawk on the hunt. I half expected him to chirp his reply. Finally, he grinned. “Yes, touch, of course.”
He’s not the only person with an aviary interest who visits Da’An. On several occasions I’ve noticed a bundled mass of jostling photographers, all huddled beside an unremarkable tree. Like nervy schoolboys at a 1970’s peep show, they fight for a peek through the camera lens. There, a flash of avine ankle. The suggestive curve of feathered wings. Rock. Solid. Beak. They’re looking, I’ve later come to realise, at the Taiwan Barbet, a fantastically colourful bird endemic to the country. Such animals pose like supermodels, and when nesting season comes around, budding nature photographers line up for the chance to get a shot.
Then there’s Parrot Guy. Parrot Guy, I’m afraid to say, walks towards the pond in resolute despair. He is bald, and the sun glistens against his head. His parrot is blue and green and perches on his shoulder in piratical splendour. At first sight of the pond, the parrot launches itself into the sky before landing regally on the tippy-top branches of a sturdy tree. An inevitable gaggle of children reach up with their grubby hands to touch its crooked beak, and it yells at them. “Bog off,” it must be trying to say.
After half an hour or so, the man blows on a whistle, and the parrot swoops obediently onto his shoulder. But as soon as he starts walking back along the path, the parrot flaps its wings and pitches away.
The man shakes his smooth, monkish head. He’s done this before. Endlessly. Back to the pond. Blow the whistle. The parrot rushes to his shoulder, and they start walking away. One step, two steps, three… The parrot hurtles back towards the pond. This continues for hours.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m something of a Da’An bird person myself. One particular creature, you see, has been known to lure me into an unwitting staring contest. A battle I fear I may never win.
The Malayan Night Heron is a deeply unsettling bird, who tends to stand on one foot, statuesque, and stare hard at passers-by. It will move a leg ever so slowly forwards, as if to take a single step. Then, right before touchdown, it will freeze. Impossibly still. Until you begin to think that perhaps it never moved at all.
The Malayan Night Heron seems acutely aware of those nearby. I have never heard the animal make a sound, nor witnessed it searching for food. Instead, the Malayan Night Heron simply watches the world move by with dark, vexing eyes.
Before working in Taipei, I had never lived in a city. Not a real city, at any rate, where birdsong is replaced by stuttering engines, and where the buildings block out the sun. It was a real challenge, at first, to find a break from all the noise, and it can feel like the weight of the world is ten times heavier when the city around you never falls asleep.
But the Bird People of Da’An are almost as fascinating to watch as the birds themselves, and when the streets seem particularly grey, and the days start bleeding together, there’s nowhere better to be than somewhere green, watching people watching birds. It’s something I’ve taken home with me. An eye for places where the people around you aren’t late for work, or shouting into their phones, or swallowing a subway foot-long before their lunch break is up. Places like Da’An park are where the world really slows down, because all anyone cares about, away from the city, is whether or not that fuzzy yellow duckling is brave enough to take its first swim.