Raised on a farm, ANDREW JOHNSTONE was brought up to think of animals as instinct-driven automatons without feelings, and to hunt and kill them for pleasure. Then everything changed.
Back in my homeland – the dead flat dairy country of the Central Waikato – you’ll seldom see a native bird bar the wax eye. This bird is endemic to the South West Pacific and is believed to have first arrived on these shores in the 1830s after being swept in by way of a powerful storm. (That was the first recorded sighting, but one has to wonder that for all the millennia this bird has been about that it took until then to find their way to these islands.)
The wax-eye (or silvereye as they call it in Australia) is classified as a self-introduced native (the faintly comical pukeko is another) and unlike the actual natives who have withered under the onslaught of aggressive species brought to these islands by settlers who didn’t know any better, the adaptable wax eye is thriving.
A springtime bird (at least where I come from) it is a delight to feed. Partial to fat, a block of NZ’s finest grass fed butter will draw them in by the dozens, and much pleasure can be had watching the social dynamics on display. An otherwise slight handful of yellow feathers, the males can get pretty aggro with each other as they tussle over the best positions from which to tackle the food. The feeding frenzy and dominance posturing can otherwise become a bit distracting – making individuals easy prey for the family cat – so the butter is best placed on high where approaching predators can be easily seen. A fence post or dangling branch does the trick nicely.
The wax eye has a short season and just as suddenly as it arrived it is gone, unlike the sparrows, mynas, starlings, blackbirds, thrushes, magpies and pigeons, who are always about. The country sparrow will eat pretty much anything and is a common sight around the local cowsheds, where they feast on the palm kernel and maize silage farmers feed the cows when fresh grass is in short supply. The sparrows here in the city are a bit different. When they are not eating spiders and insects about the eaves of buildings they are hovering up crumbs left by people eating on the move, but present them with the kind of food their country cousins will attack with gusto and they look a bit blank.
City pigeons will pretty much eat anything, unlike their country cousins who never stop to look at the bread and butter left out for their pleasure. From their roost in the phoenix palms outside the old homestead they head off every morning for feeding grounds unknown. Unlike the city pigeon, which watches the street with intense precision waiting for someone to drop a crumb or two, the country cousin has no truck with humans, coming and going in synchronised precision without as much as a ‘by your leave’.
Occasionally the cat, unable to resist the call of the cooing birds at rest, will find its way up one of these 70-year-old giants and deep into the fronds only to discover that this critter is a tough customer, and that the way down is awkward and difficult. A little wailing in the dead of night and a precarious adventure with a ladder and torch usually find a satisfactory outcome for all concerned. More amenable to the cats is the odd young pre-flight pigeons that occasionally fall to the ground. A circus ensues as wide-eyed cats gather to dab and prod and otherwise terrorise the hapless victim. An attempt might be made to salvage the wee innocent, but once the feline blood-lust has flowered there is little hope of a successful rescue. As sad as it is, one must sometimes accept that this is how it works.
As in the city, the blackbird, starling, myna and thrush will gather where there is activity and hang about in a vaguely social manner, but I have seldom seen the country cousins tackle a piece of bread or butter. Perhaps they are too well fed by the riches of worms and insects available on the wide-open land. Their city cousins have an altogether different appetite and will tackle anything. Watching a blackbird or thrush gathering bread is a novel sight for me.
There are a couple of magpies here in downtown Auckland, but they are elusive critters. Sometimes when I happen across one in a park I will stop and stare, enjoying the sight of this intelligent creature doing its thing. However, the moment they see you looking they are gone, disdain or maybe suspicion writ large in their expression. They seem uninterested in bread, grain and butter, preferring to scratch about in the mulch for insects. The country cousin is no less wary but will often join the other birds feeding on the lawn and nibble at whatever is on offer, and with a little time to develop trust, a long-term intergenerational acquaintanceship can be forged. Of all the local birds the inquisitive magpie offers some grand entertainment, being the playful sort it is, but the award for the most entertaining goes to a native and rarely seen kaka.
For a while we lived north of the Waikato on the edge of the Hauraki plains, and every year a flock of kaka, a native parrot, would drop in to feed on the local kahikatea trees on their way from far off Great Barrier Island to their summer feeding grounds in the Central North Island. About the size of a cat, this bird is impressive both in form and temperament.
Starting its adventures with the first light of day, they didn’t let up until deep twilight. When they weren’t practicing aerial acrobatics and screeching up a storm, they were teasing the cats and stripping the citrus trees of their fruit. Otherwise, they might glean a little fun from chasing the odd wayward sparrow or magpie, or maybe swing around and around on branches when nothing else was on offer. Both parts easily amused and bored, this bird was trouble looking for mischief. Endangered as they are, I thought us very lucky to have an opportunity to see them up so close.
‘This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable to which maybe the distance was no small addition. On enquiring of our people I was told that they have had observd them ever since we have been here, and that they begin to sing at about 1 or 2 in the morn and continue till sunrise, after which they are silent all day like our nightingales.’
Decimated by habitat loss and the introduction of predatory species against which they had no defence, the singers of this vast song have dwindled, their voice now a whisper. The dominant chorus now is one fed by the flourishing legions of introduced birds. This is the chorus I know best and for as long as I can remember, their crowded symphony has been the soundtrack against which I have lived my life. So all-pervasive is this song in my psyche that I still hear it when I wake, even though I am now far removed from that countryside living in a place where the birdsong is sparse. Birdsong is a vast data stream based on tone, and viewed in this way it shows itself to be a thing of wonder. We might marvel at the internet or the multitude of information-rich digital signals floating through the ether, but nature has already been there and done that. We are playing catch up at a game the birds have long mastered.
There is a tree here on my street in the heart of the city that is a magnet for sparrows. Toward sunset they return to roost and talk themselves silly. Their chirping method can sound a bit monotonal but if you listen-in carefully you will hear much subtle variation at work in the basic framework, suggesting that a wealth of information is being shared in a very economical way. These humble little creatures with their sharp eyes are more than the sum of their parts and play a vital role in keeping insect numbers in check, while efficiently taking care of food waste about the streets. Once eaten, this waste is nicely deposited around the trees they roost in, offering the plant a neat source of fertiliser.
The city starling is smart and very partial to butter and bread, the country cousin uninterested. By the 1970s this introduced species was almost wiped out by the widespread use of DDT. Their favourite food was the aptly named grass grub. Native to these shores, this soil-dwelling caterpillar fed on the roots of the grasses upon which the nation built its wealth. Some clever marketing based on fear mongering and the promise of increased production convinced farmers into drenching their land with this miracle chemical. The hapless starling feeding on the poisoned caterpillars inadvertently ingested this most voracious of toxins and almost died out. Once the mistake was realised, a concerted effort was made help the starling along, and many farms including our own invested in specialised nesting boxes. The population quietly recovered and got on with their efficient method of keeping undesirable insect populations in check.
The pukeko – like the starling – was heavily undone by DDT, but since the chemical was banned it has bounced back with a vengeance. They are a common sight across the nation and are often found squashed on the road. Sadly, the hapless pukeko has no road sense at all and in its natural habitat it is often little more than target practice for hunters in search of a kill. Friends have often justified their sport by informing me that the pukeko eats grass that would otherwise produce milk or meat and needs to be kept under control. I remain unconvinced that the flocks of pukeko at large about the nation’s farms are capable of undermining the average farmer’s bottom line to that degree, so I always take these claims with a pinch of salt.
The wild pukeko is an elusive creature that can be approached and examined more closely at the peat dome lake sitting slap bang in the centre of Hamilton. Here, the pukeko has taken on a domesticated quality and will come racing when food is on offer. All legs, it is quite a sight to see striding about competing with the ducks for scraps. I remember my farming days and the care that had to be taken when mowing the hay. The long grass made for an excellent nesting sight and vigilance was required to prevent multiple fatalities. These birds keep communal nests and beside the little black babies you will find mum, dad and various aunties. I don’t understand why so many see them as waste of space. They are beautiful to see and wonderful to know.
Ducks are a big favourite of mine and though I see few here in the city, they are numerous back home. An amenable creature, the mallard duck can become a friend and as with the magpie, a well-established bond of trust can reach out across the generations with children and grandchildren calling into feed at a place they have been educated to know as safe.
The numerous drainage channels about the landscape provide suitable nesting sites for ducks, including the ones along the roadsides. Occasionally a nested pair will fly up into the air and into the path of a car or truck. Sometimes one is killed and the other will stand over the body for days. It is a sad sight. Ducks have a good intellect and their emotional response to life should not be underestimated. The other day I came across a lone female mallard resting in the shade of a tree in an inner city park. I tossed her a handful of grain and she set about an excited quacking. When she finished she waddled up to my feet and lifted her head asking for more. Later I sat on a bench in the park and while tossing grain to the sparrows, was surprised by a wee fellow who landed on my hand and began feeding directly.
I carry all manner of feed about with me, and although everyone likes bread, it’s a nutritionally bereft product, so I prefer to offer something more substantial like whole grain and seeds. This is not to everyone’s liking – unlike butter, which appeals to a wide audience. Nutritionally dense, butter is a grand source of energy, and a block attracts a mixed and enthusiastic crowd. Individuals will pull a mouthful free, swallow it then assiduously wipe their beak on the grass before having another go. It’s amazing how quickly a kilo will disappear and how much fun it can be watching it all happen. The best pleasures are found in the simplest of acts.
I was brought up to experience non-humans as instinct-driven automatons without thought nor feelings, and that is how I treated them. My friends and I prowled the countryside wreaking havoc, first with our slingshots then air rifles and finally .22 calibre rifles. It was sport: thoughtless, violent and pleasurable. I thought nothing of it at first, lost as I was in the thrill of the hunt, then after years of deeper observation it slowly dawned on me that these creatures were more complex than I had imagined. As I examined these new feelings I began to feel shame and regret for the pain and suffering I was tossing about like cheap confetti. It was a one- dimensional perspective and I am glad to have laid it to rest. These days my outlook is altogether different and I am appreciative of the wild life that flourishes, despite the ravages wrought by humanity’s steadfast dedication to its own all consuming self-interest.
Sometimes I want to cry out: ‘Put away your smart phones and ear pieces, put aside your cares and anxiety, let go your ambition and haste. Stop, look and listen and be amazed. Hear that bird song, see the ants darting about beneath your feet, walk around rather than walk through that pigeon nibbling at discarded food. Take a moment and spare a thought and a crumb for those birds gathered at your feet watching you eat your lunch. They might like a little taste as well. Feeding the birds can do wonders for your wellbeing.’