Monday 27 July 2009

For the birds

I'm happy to report many enthusiastic customers at my new bird table, whipped up in half an hour yesterday morning. I love doing rough carpentry, scouting round the garage for bits of wood and stray screws from the stray screw container (in which, whatever you're looking for "there's always one more" my dear father told me, and he's right), and whacking in 6 inch nails. Then I made a porridge with oats and old sunflower seeds from the back of the pantry, an elderly Brie, some knobs of dripping dripping with free radicals, and a stale croissant - oh yes, I know how to treat my guests - and slopped it into the former seed tray I'd fixed on top.

Since they discovered it, it's been swarming with birds, mostly twittering little silvereyes, cute but rather drab, and a pair of pretty green and blue peach-faced lovebirds - African imports escaped from someone's aviary, and doing well to survive the winter.

Though I come from a long line of bird feeders and rescuers, I've never been a bird-watcher - but now I've been on so many trips with keen birders, I've become one by association, clocking up wedge-tailed eagles, rainbow bee-eaters and jabirus in Australia; condors, giant hummingbirds, turkey vultures and oropendulas in Peru; and I'm looking forward to the blue-footed boobies in the Galapagos Islands next month.

But the more I see of other countries' birds, the less satisfied I am with our own. For a country that, apart from a couple of species of bat, has no native mammals and virtually no other land creatures other than birds, ours are disappointingly dull - nearly all in shades of brown and khaki, self-effacing, and no great shakes in the song department either. You'd think they could have gone to town with their plumage and behaviour, having the place to themselves. Even the flightlessness is a lack of a feature rather than a feature - it's actually the essence of birdness, to be able to fly, and they don't have it. How odd, that NZ is such easy living, and has so little wildlife, and Australia is so harsh, and teems with interesting animals and birds.

This is not a popular opinion, however - the following column earned me years of internet opprobrium from the Forest and Bird people, who appear to be a humourless bunch.

>>> I’ve been catching a lot of dawn choruses lately, out walking the dog, and I have to say, they would be deeply disappointing affairs if it weren’t for the immigrants.

For all that New Zealand is a country rich in bird life, with umpteen native species, the standard of song here is abysmal. People admire the tui, and the liquid notes it drops into our gardens are certainly striking – but they never add up to anything satisfying. You could grow old and die waiting to hear something connected. It sounds as though the tui is permanently tuning up, waiting in vain for the conductor’s tap of the baton: listening to it is an unrewarding business...

No, for true heart-lifting, spirit-lightening glory, we have to turn to the English songbirds, introduced by homesick pioneers in the nineteenth century – people who have since been vilified for their insensitivity to biological purity.

Well, three cheers for them, I say. What sort of dawn – or dusk – would it be without the blackbird’s professional performance, delivered from the highest branch, or the thrush’s subtly varied triple phrases? These birds know what they’re doing, and they never disappoint. They stake out parks and gardens according to strict avian hierarchies, throw their little hearts into their singing, and fill the air with melody. They leave the silvereye and the fantail for dead...

When we cheerfully and freely pick and choose amongst the world’s best to enrich every other aspect of our lives, why should we stint ourselves with the birds? Racial purity is a thing of the past. Our society is now irreversibly mixed – stand at any intersection in Queen Street and you’ll see every possible nationality scurry past – and no-one would dare suggest that this is anything other than desirable. So why do we have to persist with this avian xenophobia?

[Pub. NZ Herald 31/12/03]

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