24 Sep Look at the Birds of the Air
“Ask the birds of the sky, and they will tell you.” (Job 12:7)
My office window overlooks a green lawn, which runs for perhaps ten metres before plunging into a gully. The gully is fletched with trees, mostly scraggy pines and paper-barked gums, and so my view is of trunks and cross-hatched branches crowding into the distance. In the morning, sunlight cuts across the lawn through a narrow gap between the building and a large rhododendron bush at the gully’s edge; in the afternoon, it falls in shifting patterns through the trees. For most of the day, then, much of the lawn is in shadow and never fully dries out. I think this is why the birds like it. They come for the worms.
Each species of bird goes about its business uniquely. The song thrush likes to prance in front of my window, puffing out its cinnamon-dusted chest and keeping to the scraps of light. It’s a quick hunter, springing across the grass in sudden bursts before it slows, then steps, then stops. It leans forward and tilts its head as if listening, but, in fact, it is watching for the minute movements that betray the worm beneath before it lunges, stabs, and drags its prey from the earth’s wet grip.
The blackbird is less showy, more cautious. It keeps to the edges of the lawn in the shadows beside the lean-to or under the picnic table, perhaps retaining some long racial memory of the four-and-twenty of its kin baked in the pie for the king. The welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas said of the blackbird that it had the “suggestion of dark places about it.” Perhaps. But I don’t think of the blackbird as a sombre creature. The autumn orange of its beak and eye rim against the black of its feathers suggests to me an open, lively intelligence. Irish writer and philosopher John Moriarty called the blackbird “nature’s paraclete, a bringer of solace and comfort to hermits and saints and eloped lovers.” I am none of these things, but it is pleasing to watch the blackbird busy at its work just now, prying its beak and chugging a worm.
Fantails visit too, though they mostly dip and dart, bank and balk, above the lawn, hawking the insects that mob the grapefruit tree at the gully’s edge. Fantails use their tail as a type of counterweight, flicking it to effect quick changes of direction, flaring white under-feathers. Fantails flit. That is their way in the world. Te reo Māori names for them pick out this aspect: pīwakawaka, tīwaiwaka, tīrairaka, hīrairaka, tīwakawaka, and tītakataka—each evokes some variation of “flitting about.” Fantails are the restless, joyful, live-wire children of the bird world.
I’ve been noticing birds lately. It turns out they are everywhere once you pay attention. A kingfisher gyroscopes on a power line. A swallow sweeps in a low arc on the bow of its wings. Tūī whir through the pūriri. Rosella chatter and squawk. I feel as if I’ve suddenly stumbled across a hidden kingdom, complete with its own rituals and pageantry, pomp and music, houses and guilds. My world feels newly graced, newly alive. And in ways I’m just beginning to make sense of, I feel newly at home in it.
I don’t know exactly when it started—me and birds. There was no great visitation by a bright-winged messenger, no blackbird fulfilling its vocation as nature’s paraclete. I’ve been reading a lot of nature books though, and finding myself inspired by them: Robert Macfarlane’s love of wood and mountain and moor (The Wild Places); Nan Shephard’s fierce romance with the Scottish Cairngorms (The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland); Barry Lopez’s bright, clear vision of the north (Arctic Dreams: Imagination in a Northern Landscape); Henry Beston’s love letter to Cape Cod (The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod); and Annie Dillard’s head-first plunge into Tinker’s Creek (Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek). I remember when I first got prescription glasses. Without realising it, I had become accustomed to the world as an indistinct blur, dull and muted. Walking out of the optometrist, I was near knocked over by the sudden light, colour, clarity, detail, and beauty all around. For a week, I wandered in a perpetual daze, eyes widened as if by matchsticks. Reading these books was like putting on new glasses. Each was written with such loving, careful, almost holy attention to the concrete details of creation that they revealed to me how poor my vision had been, how inattentive and dull I was to the splendour of things. They taught me to see and urged me to go and look around.
I have a list of books that I would love to own. The mere presence of this list transforms any casual second-hand bookstore visit into a treasure hunt. I remember the joy—the lift-it-above-my-head-and-silently-roar joy—of finding in the basement of MacLeod’s Books in Vancouver an old edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon with illustrations by Kay Nielsen. I had been hunting for years. My wife and I collect sea glass—glass worn round and frosted by the agitation of waves over many years. Each trip to the ocean takes on the character of a quest and promises with each “just-one-more-minute” a great discovery, perhaps a purple bottle-stopper or a red fragment of a ship’s light. So it is with birds. Attentive now, each walk of mine has become an adventure, an opportunity for surprise and delight. At any moment I might turn a corner and see a charm of a goldfinch or catch a sparrow struggling into the air, trailing blue ribbon in its beak. The world feels newly enchanted, thick with God’s delight in the goodness of things.
I’ve not gone full “twitcher” mind you, the less-than affectionate name for obsessive birders who travel great distances to spy new, rare birds. I do have a wish list, though, of birds I long to see: korimako, bellbird; kōkako; and ruru, morepork. Aotearoa, New Zealand is famous for its flightless birds, but I’m with Henry Beston: to really know a bird you must see it in flight. “I have been tempted to believe,” he writes in The Outermost House, “that the relation of the living bird with its wings folded to the living bird in flight is almost that of the living bird to the same bird stuffed.” The flight of a bird—its particular way of launching, lifting, lofting, folding, and falling—reveals its personality and is its particular grace (“Let the birds fly above the earth across the vault of the sky,” Genesis 1:20). All this is admittedly unfair to New Zealand’s ground-dwelling birds who faithfully and with little thanks (except perhaps from the stoats and rats) fill a needed ecological niche. And yet for me, I want to see my birds in flight—so: the kōkako, the bellbird, and the morepork, not New Zealand’s famous ground-dwellers, the kiwi, kākāpō, or takahē.
I am no twitcher, but I have found my habitual paths bent by this new interest. In Christchurch, I passed up a rare chance for a sleep-in to visit the botanic gardens early one morning before a meeting. I wanted to see bellbirds. I had read they sometimes visit the park, and so I spent an hour following the half-hoop of the Avon, searching among the trees in their winter nudity. It was a bright, blue Canterbury morning, and the low sun sent my shadow hunting in the shrubs beside the path. I had read that bellbirds are more often heard than seen. I did not know what a bellbird sounded like (bell-like, I guessed), so I found a clip on YouTube and tried to learn it. Occasionally, I held my phone aloft, half-hoping to attract a curious and love-sick bird, but then I felt bad and put my phone away. Who was I to play with a bellbird’s heart?
I saw song thrushes, blackbirds, Canada geese, tūī, kererū, and a pair of paradise shelducks perched on the limb of a common lime tree. At one point, I watched a clutch of pīwakawaka busy themselves above the water, hunting for bugs. The sunlight fell on the surface through the trees, opening windows to the trailing green algae and round stones beneath. A chip packet floated past. Across the river, a dad waited patiently for his toddler, who had clearly found something of great worth on the gravel path and had bent to examine it, like a fossicking fledgling.
I never did see a bellbird. I think I heard some, though. I followed the sound, staring up into the bare heads of the trees. Several times I thought I’d spotted one, but it turned out to be a garrulous song thrush again, hogging the limelight. Still, it was a new thing for me to navigate a park using sound. The bright sky was alive with it—not just song thrushes, but the chatter of sparrows, the harsh, demanding honk of Canada geese, the laughter of ducks with their private jokes, and the woodwind wings of kererū lofting into the treetops, which bent under their happy weight.
One Saturday afternoon, I visited the Hunua Ranges in search of kōkako. For me, the kōkako—seal-pup grey, black bandit mask like a high-end art thief—is New Zealand’s most beautiful bird. I followed the Cassey Gorge track through the forest of beech and fern and kauri. I was aware of being on the birds’ home turf now, mindful of Roger Deakin’s observation to Robert Macfarlane that birds are “the ancient aristocracy of arboreal life.” The forest was alive with their whir, chuckle, chirp, chatter, trill, cheep, and whistle. I saw tūī, kererū, and pīwakawaka. I saw my first miromiro (tomtit), hanging sideways on a moss-rugged tree, puffing out its white chest, tilting its black head, and watching me through toy-button eyes. I did not see kōkako, and, yet, I left the woods feeling full and fizzing with the breath and green of life. I drove home in fiery dusk. The sun was a great, wet lozenge, staining the sky the colour of torchlight through the web of skin between thumb and forefinger. I’ve rarely seen a sky like it, and it felt to me like a benediction on my new hobby.
I am trying to learn the names of birds. What we cannot name is often invisible to us. General names (bird, fish, mammal, tree) have their uses (cataloguing, sorting) but enable only a low type of visibility, a generalised blur attentive to the similarities between things rather than differences. “Without a name made in our mouths,” writes Tim Dee, “an animal or a place struggles to find purchase in our minds or our hearts.” To know not bird but song thrush, blackbird, kōkako, bellbird, and tomtit is to know and be alive to the world more richly. “Finding the words is another step in learning to see,” biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer observes in her book Gathering Moss.
To help me learn my birds, I’m using Lynette Moon’s Know Your New Zealand Birds. “This book,” Moon writes in the Introduction, “aims to help readers with an interest in birds to feel confident in identifying them.” It’s certainly been helpful. Often, I’ve come home from a walk having seen a new bird, muttering a litany of details, a prayer against forgetting—yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings; yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings; yellow body, size of a child’s fist, brown speckled wings—then grabbed Know Your New Zealand Birds and rifled through, looking for the bird that matches the description—in this case, the yellowhammer. The guide has a write up on each bird that includes its prevalence (common, in the case of the yellowhammer, though I swear I’ve never noticed this bird before), scientific name (Emberiza citronella), and whether its endemic (from here and nowhere else), native (self-introduced), or introduced (by humans). The yellowhammer is an immigrant, introduced from Europe in the 1860s, along with the song thrush, blackbird, and starling, by settlers homesick for the bird song of their native Britain. Moon also includes any information that might help the reader avoid common identification errors. She warns that female yellowhammers “may also be confused with female cirl buntings.” Look out for “chestnut rumps,” she advises—which I intend to do.
My favourite section is titled “Bird Topography,” which lists all the parts of a bird ornithologists use to describe them: crown, ear covets, nape, mantle, scapulars, secondaries, tertials, rump (chestnut or otherwise), uppertail coverts, primaries, undertail coverts, and so on. It’s the use of the word “topography” that I like—birds as a landscape or new continent to explore.
My copy of Know Your New Zealand Birds is second-hand. According to the sticker on the inside cover, it once belonged to a boy named Reuven who won it at “Avondale College Senior Prize-Giving in 2012 for 2nd in Psychology.” It is a crisp copy, and I suspect Reuven spent little time thumbing through it becoming confident identifying his birds. Reuven, I’m speculating, mixes up his female yellowhammers and cirl buntings all the time. Still, I like the impulse to connect birdwatching with psychology. A lazy joke here would be to mention “twitchers” and be done with it. But I think a deeper instinct is at work. Paying attention to birds is good for us, has possibilities for help and healing that go beyond simple delight to deeper realties of the human way in the world—realities many of us are in danger of forgetting.
Once, out my office window, I saw two sparrows fighting, mobbing each other in the air in a cataclysm of thrashing wings. It was late afternoon, and a strong wind gusted under a grey sky, flattening the long grass in patches and causing the gum trees to sway and hiss. I had been struggling to read in the dull light. I heard them first—a racket of chirping and beating wings. They tussled, then fell. (God saw it!—Matthew 10:24). For a moment, on the ground, one sparrow held the other by the neck with its beak. The prone sparrow’s head flopped to one side, and I thought, “It’s dead!” I could see the bare, dimpled skin beneath its neck feathers, pale as a cockle shell. It happened so fast I was in shock. Was I witness to sparrow murder, murder most fowl? But the dead bird flung itself back into the air, a diminutive phoenix without the fireworks. Nature has its dark side. Sparrows can be thugs. The circling falcon is hunting.
To pay attention is to open oneself to the wild ways of this world. But it is also to recognise that much of nature’s darkness is of our own making. Consider this: farmed poultry today makes up 70% of all birds on the planet. Just 30% of all living birds are wild. When I first heard this figure, I confess it near knocked me over. It’s obscene. Grotesque. An image seized me: I saw an army of giant chickens bloated, outsized, de-feathered, sickly, yellowed, sagging with steroids and forced feeding, marching across the face of the earth, scratching and pecking, scorching the ground to naked, dry dust. It struck me as an apocalyptic image. “I looked, and behold a pale chicken, and the name that sat on him was Convenience, and Hell followed with him.” It’s not that hard to think of it as some kind of judgement. We’ve traded tūī for Tegal Tenders, the greater bird of paradise for the (considerably lesser) KFC 3-Piece Quarter Pack. It’s difficult to feel we’ve made a wise trade. We replaced something wild for something we control. And it gets worse each year. Forty percent of all bird species globally are in decline. One in eight face extinction. All by our hands. I know it’s complicated. There are nine billion mouths to feed on this groaning planet. And yet, what do we lose when we allow the human world to consume the wild?
We lose ourselves.
One of the great lived falsehoods of our time is to think of “nature” as something outside of ourselves. Indoors, in our cities and suburbs, encased in concrete and tile, steel, and plastic, we have cut ourselves off from the natural world; we’ve broken, in the words of Thomas Berry, the “great conversation” with the other-than-human world. In doing so, we have caused damage in ways we are still struggling to comprehend—damage to the earth but also to ourselves. I recently came across the term “species loneliness.” In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer describes it as “a deep, unnamed sadness stemming from estrangement from the rest of Creation, from the loss of relationship.” Richard Louv names “the gnawing fear that we are alone in the universe, with a desperate hunger for connection with other life.” Species loneliness. A desperate hunger for connection. Surely this is one of the wounds of our age? We feel our distance from nature as a loss because deep down we know it was not what we were made for.
In Genesis 1, our first ancestors joined a cosmos already rich with life, teeming with animals and creatures of every kind. Adam and Eve took the stage in an already unfolding drama, members of a wide and varied cast. The Christian tradition names these creatures kin, children with us of the same creator God, dwellers with us in a common home. “My little sisters,” Francis of Assisi called the gathered birds to whom he preached a sermon in 1220AD. Our task in life may be different from that of other creatures. “I can cherish the fragile beauty of the first trillium against the dark moss,” writes Erazim Kohák in The Embers and the Stars, “and I can mourn its passing. I can know the truth of nature and serve its good, as a faithful steward. I can be still before the mystery of the holy.” But each creature has its task, same as me, and, together, we form an interdependent whole, a great chorus of being declaring God’s praise. Separated from nature we cannot know the full meaning, good, and health of our lives—we are diminished. We need a way back. Perhaps birds may be a way back. They have been for me.
High in the branches of the giant pōhutukawa behind my house roosts a family of white-faced heron. In the evening, as the sun dips into the Manukau Harbour, they like to flutter and croak and squawk as they settle themselves. The croak of a white-faced heron has a prehistoric tone to it, a phlegm-throated mewling quality, as if a family of pterodactyl was living overhead, as if over my house was a lost pocket of deep time. In the pōhutukawa, flapping their wings, voicing their inelegant goodnights, the white-faced heron is an ungainly bird, but I have seen them on the gun-steel flats of the harbour at low tide early in the morning, hunting with precise steps and careful patience.
What are these birds to me, and I to them? Where does the thread of their lives lead? The great American naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I pull the thread of this white-faced heron at rest on the limb above my garden and find it hitched to everything else—to the air through which it flies, to the tidal flats on which it hunts, to the fish on which it feeds, to the rough-barked pōhutukawa in which it nests, to the rich, volcanic earth from which the pōhutukawa draws strength, to the insects that burrow between its roots, to the rock to which it clings, to the mountain from which the rock came. Attention to the heron opens the world to me, makes me alive in new ways to its wonder, delight, strangeness, and beauty, and to the goodness, wisdom, and power of God displayed in it. With Michelle Nijhuis, I become aware that “my human household is part of an ecosystem—one populated with, and supported by, a variety of species living in relationship with one another.” I feel with new depth and texture that what is good for the earth is good for me, and that I share a common home with a great community of creatures whom I am called to know, love, and serve. I discover that only in doing so may I find the fullness and health of my life. Birds, then, are not the thread, but this sleek heron is a needle, threading my life back into the richly woven fabric of the natural world, the common home I share with all God’s creatures.
One night, recently, just as I was readying for bed, I heard the cry of a morepork somewhere close outside. More-pork, more-pork, more-pork. I opened the back door and stepped onto the back step. It was cold, and my breath lifted in front of me. More-pork, more-pork, more-pork. There it was, hidden but for its cry in the tall pine tree in our neighbour’s backyard. The pine was a deep shadow against the night sky. Behind it, a bank of clouds muddied by the city lights made the torn strip of night below appear like a distant mountain range, though I know there are no mountains in that direction, not for a long while. The strange night geography and the cry of the morepork made me feel as if I’d stepped outside my house into another world.
More-pork, more-pork, more-pork. Now that I listened closely, I noticed another voice had joined the chorus. I wondered at first if there were not two morepork calling one to another, but then I realised it was my human neighbour two houses down, mimicking the cry. The morepork and my neighbour went back and forth for some time—more-pork, more-pork, more-pork—and what was said and what was heardbetween them, I do not know. Soon, however, my neighbour grew tired and left the morepork alone to cry its two-tone hunting cry over the dark rooftops of the neighbourhood.
I had been longing to see a morepork, and, I confess, as I stood in the cold, I prayed to see it launch from the branches and sweep silently across the sky. I stood and listened for a long time. And then I saw it. A grey shadow separated from the dark branches of the pine and glided over the roof of my neighbour’s house, silent as a ghost. I raced out the front door, trying to follow it, but it was already gone, lost somewhere in the dark trees behind the houses over the road.
For Māori, ruru or morepork are seen as watchful guardians, and their ruru or more-pork call signifies good news. Good news. The word ruru as a verb can mean “to tie together” or “to take refuge.” I think my neighbour had the right of things. In his stilted attempt to communicate, he followed some deep, not-yet-erased human instinct. We have broken the “great conversation,” and we are a lonely species. But still, we long to know and be known by the other-than-human world, to find refuge, to be tied together back into the great web of life. We long to find our voice within the great chorus of being. Perhaps birds might be a way back. If only we pay attention.
Beston, Henry. The Outermost House: A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006.
Dee, Tim, “Naming Names,” Caught By The River (blog),June 25, 2014, https://www.caughtbytheriver.net/2014/06/naming-names-tim-dee-robert-macfarlane/
Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Olive Editions, 2016.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass. Tantor Media, 2016.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses. London: Penguin Books, 2021.
Kohák, Erazim V. The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Lopez, Barry Holstun. Arctic Dreams: Imagination in a Northern Landscape. New York: Bantam, 1986.
Louv, Richard, “Richard Louv on ‘Our Species Loneliness,’” North Cascades Institute (blog), November 13, 2019, https://blog.ncascades.org/naturalist-notes/our-species-loneliness/
Macfarlane, Robert. The Wild Places. London: Granta, 2018.
Moon, Lynnette. Know Your New Zealand Birds. Auckland; London: New Holland, 2007.
Moriarty, John. Nostos. Dublin, Ireland: Lilliput Press, 2011.
Muir, John. My First Summer in the Sierra. Layton, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2018.
Nijhuis, Michelle, “Species Solidarity: Rediscovering Our Connection to the Web of Life.” Yale Environment 360, May 11, 2021. https://e360.yale.edu/features/species-solidarity-rediscovering-our-connection-to-the-web-of-life
Shepherd, Nan. The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland. Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2019.
Thomas, R.S. “A Blackbird Singing.” Poeticious, https://www.poeticous.com/r-s-thomas/a- blackbird-singing. Accessed 9 July 2021.
(Image: J. G. Keulemans, in W.L. Buller’s A History of the Birds of New Zealand. 2nd edition. Published 1888., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)