Friday, 18 September 2009

Bird of the year

The poll is open to cast your vote for the native bird of the year at the Forest and Bird website. New Zealanders like their birds – well, they have to; they have no native mammals. The national radio station plays a bird call every day before the news bulletin on Morning Report. It’s a delightful introduction to a few minutes filled with war, financial machinations, politics and crime. A proposal to silence the bird call in 2005 was met with unprecedented outrage by listeners – so they do care for something other than rugby, which is nice.

I am intrigued by birds and think they make a good walk into something wonderful. So when I arrived on these shores, one of the first books I bought was The Reed Field Guide to New Zealand Birds. I thought it would help me understand my adoptive land. New Zealand birds are, quite frankly odd. Fantails (piwakawaka) attack. Or so I thought when we first arrived here and as we walked through the bush these feathered darts would whistle and hover around us. I know now that they are looking for the tasty morsels we disturb with our tramping (great word – so much more active than rambling, don’t you think?) feet, but at the time I thought they were somewhat sinister.

I love the cheeky kea, or mountain parrot, with its strutting walk and defiant demeanour – like a Mancunian chancing his arm in a fight he knows he has no right to win. The way it hops off laughing after it’s just destroyed your tent or your walking boots is less endearing and I have known climbers to throw snowballs at them to try and scare them away from their essential equipment along with one or two choice epithets.

When we went on a trip to Stewart Island, the dawn chorus was more of a cacophony. One friend hid beneath a pillow and ranted about the ‘bloody birds!’ A kaka screamed at us from a branch as we walked underneath – hurriedly. I was all for turning back but Him Outdoors told me not to be daft – ‘It’s only a bird!’ Easy for you to say – I have been dive-bombed while running and cycling by magpies, red-billed gulls (tarāpunga) and Australasian harriers (kahu) – in fact I have been knocked off my bike by a particularly aggressive magpie. Don’t tell me birds are harmless.

On Ulva Island we saw a kiwi in the middle of the day, plodding across the path with preposterous feet. It ‘hid’ behind a fallen tree – sticking its frankly ridiculous beak into the earth and trying to blend in, with a ‘if I can’t see you, you can’t see me’ attitude favoured of five-year-olds. No wonder this bird is practically extinct! This may be the national icon of the country and so stands a good chance in the polls, but as the witty and astute Michele A’Court points out, kiwis can’t fly, and isn’t that kind of the definition of a bird?

Which reminds me of one of my favourite jokes – Q: What do you call a fly with no wings?’ A: a walk. (My other favourite jokes are Q: What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A: a carrot; and Q: Where do you find a tortoise with no legs? A: where you left it – which probably gives you an indication of my sense of humour.)

Having said that, I’m a fan of penguins from the Little Blue variety (korora) beloved of Oamaruvians, which I’ve also seen waddling up the beach at Seatoun (the penguins, that is), to the Fiordland Crested (Tawaki) who entertained us as we paddled our kayaks through the still waters of Milford Sound. I like the big fat green flightless and nocturnal Kakapo which has to be the crappest parrot in existence. And I like the kakariki, which is actually a parakeet from New Caledonia. Obviously an interloper, it is far too flamboyant to fit in with the New Zealand lifestyle but it escapes from the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary and streams through the skies brightening up the otherwise terminally dull suburb.

Another favourite is the little fluffy adorably cute morepork (ruru). Although I’ve never seen one, I’ve frequently heard their distinctive call. When we were on a sailing holiday with Scary Sis, her husband and friends, we discovered a close relative – the ‘moreport’; a creature with a similarly distinctive call found on mini yachts that come out after dark and fed on copious quantities of fortified wine.

I like kingfishers (kotare)whose brilliant swooping used to accompany me on my bike rides round the bays. The white herons (kōtuku) provide grace and style to Okarito (otherwise known for Keri Hulme). Bar-tailed godwits (kuaka) are commendable for their amazing flight (once round the world every year) while the tui and bellbirds (korimako) have beautiful calls and provide friendship in the suburbs.

The precision plunges of gannets (takapu) into the waves are exceptional and the silvereyes (tauhou) flitting about the garden with their shrill cheeping and their circular flight patterns would get the vote of my erstwhile cat, Hatstand. I’m also struck (though, thankfully, not literally) by the wood pigeons (kereru) who are nothing like the city variety found in London that remind me of rats with wings. These huge plump beautiful birds just look too tasty for their own good.

Various ‘celebs’ are getting behind their bird of choice – Kiri Te Kanawa favours the kereru, Sam Hunt the pied stilt, and Jeremy Wells the royal spoonbill. Okay, so I’m no celebrity, but I cast my vote for the humble pukeko, which is a far more evocative name than the New Zealand Swamp Hen. Their iridescent indigo blue plumage, flashing white tail feathers, orange legs and feet, and bright red beaks make them a favourite of children’s book illustrators and energy companies, and they are far more deserving of iconic status than the boring brown kiwi.
Although we lived there for 18 months, I don’t really like Christchurch, but the sight of these curious birds flipping and flapping by the poo ponds out towards QEII always made me smile as I drove or cycled to the swimming pool. And they can fly, although their legs trailing behind them as they do so makes them look rather ungainly. They also gang up on stoats and rats and drive them away from their wetland habitat. I am not a big fan of rats, so this is a Good Thing.

Chester once caught a pukeko chick and seemed to know he had Done Wrong. He brought it into our kitchen and dumped it behind the flour bin. The little ball of blue fluff looked like a flump. We nursed it, calmed its beating heart and splinted its tiny leg with toothpicks.

It lived in our bathroom for a while until it appeared ready to be released, and we could clean up the poop. A few months later I saw one running around with a limp and I can’t begin to tell you how guilty I felt. If for no other reason than atonement on behalf of my cat, I am voting for the pukeko.

You have until October 14th to
cast your vote for your favourite native bird.

No comments: