I just found more information about Federico (referenced first here):

His last name was Sabini and his wife was named Anna Magenta. They lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in a bad neighborhood. The only peaceful activity in that neighborhood was the gathering of elderly Chinese "birdmen" who brought their Hua Mei birds in cages to a patch of dirt off Broome Street. Anna and Federico were instrumental in creating a public garden there, to beautify the area where the birdmen congregated, in the Chinese manner. The Hua Mei garden still exists today. Seven days a week, as many as 30 birdmen bring up to 50 songbirds to the garden. A single female bird is brought and the males compete for her attention. "They want their songs to be the loudest," explains Federico. "Or the prettiest," Anna adds.

City Lore magazine, p5, volume 9


Nearly every morning at sunrise, amid the clamor of delivery trucks and the early Chinatown bustle, Ronnie Lee hops on his five-speed bike and slowly pedals toward his oasis of calm.

At the Hua Mei Bird Garden, Lee removes two small square bamboo birdcages from the front basket of his lime-green Schwinn. After stretching open the flaps of the white cotton cloth that covers his two yellow finches, the retired restaurant worker hangs one cage on a wrought-iron post. The other he hangs on a nearby tree.

"The birds like to come here to sing," said Lee, 63, from Hong Kong. "When they hear the other birds sing, they join in."

By 9 a.m., the tiny green sanctuary, tucked among concrete playgrounds and basketball courts at the north end of Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, is a cacophony of trilling songbirds.

Howard Ko, 55, brings his golden-brown Hua Mei - or "beautiful white eyebrow," for the distinctive white rim around its eyes - by way of a livery car from his apartment in East Harlem.

The semi-retired construction worker sets the larger, oval-shaped bamboo cage down on a stone slab in the center of the garden.

"I don't feel any life pressure when I'm here," said Ko, also from Hong Kong. "I just like to listen to the birds, drink tea and talk to my friends."

On weekdays, a dozen or so Chinese men congregate by the concrete ledge outside the garden's fence to admire one another's flitting songbirds and socialize.

On Saturdays and Sunday mornings, however, more than 50 bamboo cages dot the garden. Some Hua Mei owners make the weekend journey from as far away as Albany.

The melodious tunes - shrill to some - drown out the sounds of the buzzing park.

"This is a hobby for old guys," said Ko. "It's part of Chinese tradition."

Watching Hua Mei, finches and other caged songbirds has played a part in the vibrant morning park culture in Hong Kong and mainland China for more than 2,000 years.

Hua Mei, a fighting thrush that hails from the forests of southern China, was known to be a favorite of a Chinese emperor, Ko said.

Despite its popularity, the Hua Mei Bird Garden hasn't always been a favored destination.

Taking back the land

In 1995, Anna Magenta and her husband, Federico Savino, took notice of the few elderly men who gathered at the dilapidated patch of land in their neighborhood.

"It was a garbage heap," said Magenta, an artist who in 1993 founded the Forsythe Garden Conservancy.

"There was no maintenance, and nobody was using the park except drug dealers," she said.

After raising $2,000, the couple replaced the aging tile with stone slabs. With help from the local community, they planted an array of Asiatic shrubs and lilies.

Savino, a photographer, built the dozen wrought-iron bird posts from tubing donated by a local plumbing company.

Wild berry plants, including kiwi, attract wild sparrow, crows, starlings and blue jays.

Retired garment worker Kin Tam, 63, said the happiness brought about by singing birds is infectious. His unnamed Hua Mei keeps keeps him company at his Astoria, Queens, apartment.

"He's happy when he sings," Tam said. "When he's happy, I'm happy."

Originally published on August 16, 2003