Collection of bird stories to be treasured

Doug Anderson enjoys a charming delightful collection about our varied avian wildlife.  

Elisabeth Easther (Ed)
Vintage/Random House


The birds of New Zealand are a key part of our country’s identity.  The kiwi serves as the exemplar of this.  Of course, there’s also the moa, tui, kakapo, kea and so many more.  From Maori legends to modern-day  tales, birds are used as key parts of our stories.

Bird Words is a charming, delightful collection of fiction and non-fiction on our varied avian wildlife.  Some pieces I recognised from way back,  such as an excerpt from Philip Temple’s Beak of the Moon.  This was a Watership Down-style look at the lives of keas in the Southern Alps.

There’s a vast range of stories,  from journalism to poetry and even a short play written for four women.  My  favourite was the poem As the godwits fly by J.C. Sturm. It taps into themes of great distances, the need to go forth and the passage of time.

One overall idea that makes itself felt strongly is that of extinction; so many species of birds have been wiped out or have come perilously close.  Richard Holdaway writes of Haast’s Eagle, the largest eagle that ever lived and undisputed king of New Zealand’s skies.  It is now gone forever, only viewed in pictures and skeletons.

Hal Smith writes movingly about the  Herculean efforts to save the Chatham Island black robin and how Old Blue, a female, lived for 14 years and was described as almost singlehandedly bringing  her breed back from the edge of extinction.

Non-native birds get a look in as well. Frank Sargeson writes appealingly about a black Orpington hen given  13 eggs to hatch out.  The detailed writing hints at deeper emotions, a common theme of Sargeson’s writing.

The writing is complemented by lovingly detailed black-and-white illustrations by Lily Daff.  Her pictures were originally commissioned by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand in two series in 1927 and 1931 to raise awareness of the endangered status of our native birds.

This book will make an excellent gift for  Christmas, whether it be for a loved one or a treat for yourself.  Buy it.

- Doug Anderson is a Dunedin part-time data entry worker and writer.

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