Each New Zealand bird has a Latin, an English and Maori name. Skye Wishart, author of The Brilliance of Birds, has added one more to highlight its unique behaviour.
Stilts are wading ballerinas. Pukeko are mafia mobs in black and blue. The Kiwi is a mammal like bird with more oddities than just its knitting needle beak. The Swamp Harrier is a roadkill ripper on rural highways. Stitchbirds are at home in the swinging sixties. And the Black Swan is a vocal Australian that forms civil unions.
The Brilliance of Birds is quite different from the usual rather dry bird handbook. It is full of quirky humour and avian dramas and adventures. Some of our birds do have weird and wonderful habits. The Australasian crested Grebe eats its own feathers, our forest dwelling owl the morepork can turn its neck 270 degrees, and hihi demonstrate unusual sexual behaviour.
But Skye Wishart has also packed in a great deal of information about each of the sixty birds she has covered including how they mate, build their nests, rear their chicks and their feeding habits.
A frequently recurring theme is how much harm predators such as cats, weasels, and rats are contributing to the depletion of our birds, especially those which are endemic. Of the 168 species of native birds in New Zealand 32 % are in serious trouble, 49 % are in some trouble and only 20 % are ok which is very disturbing. Modern conservation methods are slowly helping to improve the situation, but we have a very long way to go.
Maori had an intimate relationship with birds as shown in their myths, legends and sayings. They were skilled bird hunters and would hypnotise a ruru by doing a haka while gradually moving towards it and snaring it. Magnificent chiefly cloaks (kahu kiwi) were created with kiwi feathers. And there were many sayings comparing humans to birds e.g. a stubborn irritating person was said to have taringa pakura (pukeko ears).
The photographs for The Brilliance of Birds were taken by Edin Whitehead, a seabird biologist and award-winning conservation photographer.
For this birdventure she travelled from the Far North to the Deep South and took some amazing photographs of birds in forests, mountains, rivers, and sea. Her photographs of seabirds flying are quite spectacular. Others that especially appealed to me were of a beachcombing weka on Ulva Island, a foraging yellowhead hanging upside down from a branch, and two rifleman chicks pestering their mother for a feed of small insects.
You too can have a birdventure by just walking outside and exploring the birds in your backyard. But if you go further afield into the bush or to the beach you might just spot a kereru who has got drunk on fermented fruit falling out of a tree or catch sigh of an oystercatcher smashing limpets sideways off rocks.
As Skye Wishart writes: “To know more about these birds is to feel something for them: to notice even the everyday ones and enjoy observing them going about their busy lives, but also to be inspired to help protect our more precious birds from their slide towards extinction.”
I found the Brilliance of Birds a joy to read and would highly recommend it.
Title: The Brilliance of Birds by Skye Wishart and Edin Whitehead. Imprint: RHNZ Godwit RRP $55