JAKARTA, Feb 24 (Reuters) Perched inside a lavishly decorated cage, a palm-sized Indonesian songbird looks unsuspectingly at its owner.
Rudjiono is worried he may have to kill his six-month-old zebra dove if the government orders a cull in his neighbourhood to stamp out bird flu, which has already killed millions of fowl across the sprawling archipelago.
''This is a very sensitive and loving creature. How can you kill it? It makes no sense,'' said Rudjiono, the musical sound of some 100 songbirds in a wooden cage filling the air.
Rudjiono, who heads a local association of zebra dove lovers, is one of millions of Indonesians on tenterhooks as the government begins scouring high-risk areas in Jakarta today to test thousands of birds for the H5N1 virus.
Officials will slaughter all fowl within a kilometre of where infected birds were found in a renewed campaign to stamp out bird flu which has killed 19 people in Indonesia.
So far, the government has resisted the mass culling of fowl seen in some other nations, and concentrated instead on selective culling and spreading public awareness.
But many Indonesians are worried.
For many people like Rudjiono, the zebra dove locally known as Perkutut and other exotic birds are more than just pets. They're almost a national obsession.
Priced as high as 30,000 dollars, a trained Perkutut is treated with special care and kept in decorative cages. It is given herbal medicine to beautify its voice and bathed in rose water.
Millions of rural families in the world's fourth most populous nation have traditionally kept poultry in their backyards while the more affluent ones keep their prized songbirds inside their homes.
INGRAINED IN CULTURE Keeping backyard chickens is ingrained in Indonesia's culture and for many families exotic birds are also a status symbol.
According to Bird Life, a bird conservation group, there are more than 2.5 million pet birds in Indonesia, including protected species such as the brilliantly coloured Bird of Paradise.
''From our research in five main cities in Indonesia on average, one in every five households keeps singing birds as pets,'' Bird Life's manager of research, Pete Wood, told Reuters.
Government officials put the number of backyard poultry in Indonesia at 370 million fowls.
Bird flu, which first surfaced among Indonesia's fowl in late 2003, has been found in 23 of its 33 provinces and has killed more than 10 million domesticated birds.
Although new infections in fowl dropped significantly last year from the previous year, the number of cases among humans has risen in the past six months.
The government has set up a national team to combat bird flu, but progress has been slow due to the lack of a strategy.
''The government must have a concrete plan to re-arrange backyard farms and give training on hygiene and sanitation,'' said Budi Tri Akoso of the Association of Indonesian Veterinarians.
Veterinarian Arsentina Panggabean, one of the officials in charge of building awareness among poultry breeders, said many residents were resentful of the plans to slaughter fowl.
''It's actually easier to talk with residents whose areas are exposed with bird flu because the issue has hit them in the face,'' Panggabean said.
''But if we talk to those living in non-affected areas then they would have their own ideas.'' REUTERS SB BS1023