"A little bird told me" is an idiom which refers to information which was gathered from a source not to be overtly exposed. Compare it to "I heard it through the grapevine" which refers to information which was obtained via an informal contact. Of course, my friend Andy Young will point out that it is also a title of a signature song by Marvin Gaye who released it in 1968.
Anyway, my article today is not about 1960s music. It is about a traditional occupation - a fortune teller. Mind you, not just any fortune teller. There are many kinds - some gaze into a crystal ball; some use playing cards; some look at your face or palms; some shake your fortune out from coins in tortoise shell; and so on. But there's one thing all fortune tellers share in common, and that is you don't have to spend a fortune to have your fortune told. Their prices are really quite reasonable
If their soothsaying didn't come true for you, you can always blame it on
A fortune teller could be of any race. But for some unknown reason, fortune tellers with little birds (not figuratively) in Singapore nowadays are likely to be Indians. Usually the bird is either a parrot or a canary. However, I remember that decades ago, Chinese fortune tellers also had little birds. They preferred to use Java sparrows instead.
So how does a little bird tell someone's fortune? The bird has to be trained to pick out one card from a stack which is spread out on the table. So that it will not fly away, the bird probably had its wings clipped. Once it has mastered the skill of picking a card, the fortune teller can start picking a customer. When a fortune needs to be told, the bird is let out of the cage. It picks a card by pulling it out from the stack with its beak. Once it has done this seemingly simple task, it is promptly rewarded with a grain of seed or padi and its work is considered done. The bird voluntarily hops back into the cage, after which its master closes the cage gate. Now it is the fortune teller's turn to spin his tale.
Sometimes, the fortune teller may have 2 birds instead of 1. In such a case, the birds do not work so hard but then the downside is that they do not get their rewards as often.
Below is an exhibit on the Indian fortune teller which I saw at the Catholic High School on 22 Nov 2008:
The explanatory notes at the exhibit says:
"The Indian fortune teller is now getting to be a rarity along the street in Little India. The Indian fortune teller keeps a canary or parrot in a cage as he sets up a small stall along the shophouses. When a customer pays the fortune teller to have his fortune told, the fortune teller will open up the cage and tells the canary to choose a card from a stack of cards on the table. The Indian fortune teller will then reveal the customer's upcoming misfortune or lucky streak to him."
Read the stories of fortune tellers here and here.