Friday, 30 May 2008

B = Birds

Indigo Bunting, of Alphabird and more latterly Route 153 fame, who inspired this blog, writes frequently of birds. What intrigues me is that she does it with an infectious fascination and love. I’ve never really thought of birds this way before, but this entry is for her.

Growing up by the coast at the bottom of the Pacific, the birds we were most familiar with were water birds, apart from the odd magpie attracted by my mother’s silver hair clips, swooping at her as she hung out the washing behind our house.

In the lake nearby, wild ducks, Canada geese (introduced to New Zealand from the United States as a gift from US President Theodore Roosevelt), and black and white swans were abundant. They never learned that in the beginning of May, duck shooting season began as the winter weather arrived. My dad would go out with his brothers and neighbours almost daily, in the manuka maimai. The results of the day were brought home to us, for plucking and later, for good eating. We always knew to spit out the pellets from the shot gun (poor ducks never had a chance), but forgot to warn my city born and bred husband the first time he experienced this.

Otherwise, the birds we were surrounded with were exotic blackbirds and sparrows. I’m using exotic here in the ”not native” sense of the word.

In the swamp down the road, we often saw pukeko, one of New Zealand’s many flightless birds. The pukeko can be, I learned recently, quite a vicious bird. If you're a duck. But you have to admit, it's awfully cute in a lovably awkward indigo blue sort of way.

Occasionally a fantail or piwakawaka would venture to the coast, miles from its native bush. Going to the bush was a treat – we would look for the tui, delighting at the sight of its tuft, listening hard to identify the chattering clicks and coughs and high notes that make up its song. We also loved the calls of the kokako and bellbird. Their voices were otherworldly, beautiful in their purity. Another thrills was to hear the thumping flap of the wings of the elusive wood pigeon, or kereru.

Living in New Zealand’s capital city in 2008, you would expect we don’t see much birdlife. But in recent years the bird life in the city has exploded as a direct result of the establishment of a bird sanctuary. Tui are now commonplace throughout the city - we have several who love our trees. On fine days I sit at my computer, with my window open, and hear their song. At night, as we lie in bed drifting off to sleep, we often hear the native owl calling morepork or ruru, named as it sounds.

Because New Zealand had no land mammals (other than the bat) or snakes, there were no natural predators for our native birds. Consequently a number are flightless, most famously the kiwi.More beautiful, once thought extinct, is the slow, stately and vulnerable takahe.

Weka are curious and destructive. Many a traveller has left their car on the road to Milford Sound to look at the view or play in the snow, only to return and find their windscreen wipers ripped off by a gang of cheeky weka. Campers are equally vulnerable, leaving their tents or goods unsecured at their peril.

Unfortunately the arrival of humans, who hunted birds for food and who brought rats, stoats and ferrets, cats and dogs, our birds found themselves at serious risk. Some have disappeared, most notably the moa, others are still endangered. Our Department of Conservation has done a wonderful job of saving the black robin and the takahe, to name just a few.

I remember being on a trip once with my family. We had stopped beside a river for lunch or afternoon tea, and my father suddenly hushed us. We could sense his excitement as he pointed out a rare blue duck.

At his funeral, my sister talked about spending time with him when she was young, before I came along and disrupted things. He used to take her to the beach, by the lake, and would talk about the things he thought they could see. When she got her glasses at age 13, she could for the first time see all the birds he used to point out to her, and finally understand why he was so fascinated.

My dad would have liked Indigo Bunting.

Oh ... and I know Helen wanted a shag, so how can I deny her?


  1. Ooh that was a great shag, but it ended far too quickly.

  2. Oh, Mali, that was wonderful. I certainly knew about the kiwi, but I didn't realize that there were so many flightless birds in NZ. I remember looking frantically online when you previously mentioned a tui until I found its beautiful call. Maybe someday I'll hear it for myself...

    Is it my imagination, or did that kokako begin to sing a little of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor"?

    The part about your dad made me teary.

    This was truly a bird tour treat.

    Now I have to figure out if shags are grebes.

    As usual, Helen made me laugh!

  3. are you guys familiar with the expression, as in being abandoned to a boring conversation, or at a social event: " So anyway she left me there like a shag on a rock"?

  4. Helen: I'm speechless!

    IB: Glad you liked it. Our kokako are very classy birds, you know!

    Mrs S: Nope, haven't heard that one before. Will use it now though.

    Bridgett: Hands off, they're ours!

  5. So am I, it was that good!

  6. Mrs. S: Haven't heard that one, but likin' it.


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