11 May 2006

Beauty and the bird

Trying to get this posted has nearly driven me crazy. I wrote it, but when I tried adding the photos, I found blogger seems to have changed its code for incorporating photos and I could either have tiny thumbnails or huge pictures that hogged the entire page. Eventually I found a work-around, which means the photos you see on this page are full size—don't bother clicking them because you'll only get the same image. It wasn't broken, blogger—why did you try to "fix" it?! <end rant>.

Also, I'm house sitting again; a different but equally lovely house above Wellington harbour, and I'm trying to process photos using an LCD screen—not recommended, as they're very sensitive to viewing angle. I managed to leave behind most of the photos I wanted to illustrate this post and I'm not driving hundreds of kilometres back to the Pohangina Valley, so you're seeing mostly old, low quality pictures I had lying around on the portable disk. Excuses, excuses... but I do hope you'll find something here to enjoy.

At last, the tag: “post a list of your 10 most beautiful birds, restricted to a geographical region.” I'll ignore my reservations about so-called memes, which in this sense seem to me to be virtual chain letters and to have little connection with the original idea of memes, and instead treat this in the spirit it's intended. But what is beauty? Why 10? (I prefer odd numbers; even numbers seem boring, too complete, too lacking in possibility.) For that matter, what is a bird? I haven't followed this meme through the blogosphere, just happened upon it, but so far I've only found one person who didn't synonymise “bird” with “species”—Debbie, who commented here recently. That resonated. I'd already realised that one of my favourite birds wasn't a species, he was an individual—the blackbird who for several years raised multiple broods in our garden and eventually trusted us enough to take food from our fingers. He even came inside and stole the cats' food. We called him “Sir”, because we respected him. By the end of the season he was anything but beautiful in the conventional, physical sense—exhausted, feathers frayed, some missing: a right scruff. In our eyes, however, he was always beautiful. Like Clare's ravens, Sir's beauty went beyond the simplicity of black plumage. He was an individual, with a personality.

The bird Debbie identified is both individual and conceptual: it's the albatross of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. In contrast, another beautiful bird is both individual and collective, utterly real and and ignored to the point of invisibility. Here in Aotearoa we call them chooks—domestic fowls. I grew up with chooks in the back yard; my father bred prize-winning white wyandotte bantams and Rhode Island reds; I have a medal his father, the grandfather I never met, won for the same breed of bantams.

What do I find beautiful about chooks? When you know them, when you've grown up with them, when you've met them in many countries, when you realise how each bird has its own pattern of plumage and an individual personality, yet remains undeniably a chook, a hen, a rooster, a fowl, a chicken, Gallus domesticus—then they become beautiful. And, if you still need convincing, find someone with Spangled Old English Game bantams. Perhaps you might be lucky enough to be allowed to pick one up. Feel your hands encircle the small, tightly feathered body—see how it feels as light and tough as a cork? Hold it up; see how it's starting to go red in the face? Don't stress it any more—put it down, watch it shake and ruffle then look for the food it will have expected you to scatter. Then try to tell me they're not beautiful.

But what about battery hens? This is where I really begin to ask, “ What is a bird?” In one sense—perhaps the usual—a bird is a vertebrate with feathers: an egg-laying assemblage of muscle, bone, blood, and so on with particular patterns of behaviour... in other words, a bird is what makes it nothing else; the process of definition is that of discrimination and classification. This has its uses but it's like saying a cat is something with four legs, fur, and a purr. Yes, I concede battery hens are birds, even if they're not treated as such; even if they're treated as meat and eggs and nothing more—except, perhaps, as reservoirs of avian influenza, which seems to confer the right to deal with any domestic poultry in whatever way we consider expedient. But their “birdness” seems somehow diminished. I wonder whether this, consciously or not, was one of the reasons battery farming arose—an attempt to ease our conscience about treating birds purely as food, analogous to the way we degrade human prisoners to diminish their humanity and justify our own inhumanity. The simple point is that anything out of context loses something of its essence. For a long time now, I've been keenly aware of how inseparable living things are from their surroundings: a bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. Whio in an aviary are not the whio I know swimming and whistling on the Pohangina or resting on a midstream rock in remote Scamper Torrent; remove a rock wren from its hard, wild, alpine environment and the bird becomes something else. So does the place you took it from.

Semantics, you might say—but for me birds are as much relationships and processes as flesh and feathers. Perhaps that's why some extinct birds, like the huia, are still real for me—precisely because they have the power to affect me. And birds are more than species; they're individuals and sometimes they're higher taxonomic levels, they're ideas, they're much more, and if you recognise just one of those aspects, you're missing much of the beauty of birds.

Why 10? As I write this, I haven't chosen the 10 birds I consider most beautiful. I know some I'll mention (I already have), but any list is a comparison that says this is better than that. I admit that some birds thrill me in ways more common birds seldom do, but I'm nevertheless disinclined to demean those more familiar friends by excluding them from an artificial list. Still, Clare's tagged me and I'll do it, restricting my choices to birds from Aotearoa/New Zealand. I'm supposed to asterisk birds I've seen, but have I seen a huia? Has Debbie, or anyone, seen Coleridge's albatross? Am I being perversely contentious? Probably, but I don't mind.

Now, finally, here's a list of some beautiful birds. If I knew enough about computers I'd write a little program that floated these names randomly around a page, occasionally bringing any one or other into prominence, then replacing it with another. But I don't, so you'll just have to imagine it.

NZ rock wrens; piwauwau; Xenicus gilviventris*
Whio; blue duck; Hymenolaimus malacorhynchus*
The New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae): Huia, Heterolocha acutirostris (*); kokako, Callaeas cinerea (*); and tieke, saddleback, Philesturnus carunculatus*
Any chooks allowed to live the way chooks should*
The little owls (Athene noctua) that lived in the rough little valley where I grew up*

And that's enough. How can I possibly include Kea (Nestor notabilis*) and Karearea (NZ falcon, Falco novaeseelandiae*) and be forced by an arbitrary number to exclude titipounamu (rifleman, Acanthissita chloris*) or hihi (stitchbird, Notiomystis cincta*) or any others?

I can't. What I usually conclude is that the most beautiful bird of all is the one captivating me right at that moment.

1. Red-billed gull, tarapunga, Larus novaehollandiae scopulinus; Kaka Point, Catlins.
2. Mongolian chook; Tosontsengel.
3. Takahe, Porphyrio mantelli hochstetteri. This is a repost from my no longer active OutsideIn blog.
4. Kea, Nestor notabilis. This is a repost from my old blog.
5. This is Ralph. He and I can't decide who's looking after whom, but we stick pretty close. He's the reason I'm likely to end up with OOS and curvature of the spine and loss of feeling in my legs—he's big and he likes laps, particularly when there's activity like typing going on.

Right, I give up.

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Anonymous said...

Brilliant. I'm so glad that you overcame your dislike for meme's long enough to respond to this one. Once again, you've managed to put down many of my feelings succinctly and beautifully, where I could only stumble and mumble.

And why are chooks not on everyones list, including mine?

robin andrea said...

Yes, brilliant. You took the meme to a new level. You articulated what probably went through everyone's mind when they sat down to try and come up with a list. Why this and why not that? Why this list at all? Beautifully done, Pete.

And, Ralph is quite a handsome cat. Good that you yield to his insistence.

Anonymous said...

the best '10 birds meme' post so far.. I cannot separate a bird from it's song or behavior.. then there's the individuals, like the y.b. sapsucker that inprinted on me 2 years ago..the pileated woodpecker that took suet right from my hands because she was frantic to feed her hungry chicks..
a list I found impossible to do, but I gave it a shot.
Glad you did too :)

Schwelmo said...

10 favorite birds?? I dunno nothing about birds but I guess it would in my case look somehow like that: There is Nicki, a cockatiel which I hold in a cage as a kid. As they are monogamic she fell in love with me, which really pissed my sister off as it actually was hers. We probably broke her heart when we got rid of her after we didn’t keep up cleaning the cage. There would be Phoenix, which is probably not a real bird. I like penguins as they looking a bit like my football team when they walk on land. The Kakapo is pretty funny bird (according to the description in “last chance to see” by Douglas Adams). Eagles are cool as well. Except for the band “The Eagles”. Magpies are allright as well, I mean the football club Newcastle United. Real Magpies are scary. And then there are all those beautiful chicks you see here and there sometimes…..
Angels and fairies are no birds, ey?
And yes, I am grown up in a city.

DJ Lee said...

Pete, Thank you for including me. So many things to respond to here. I did check out the NZ albatross center. It’s the first time I’d ever heard of partying adolescent albatrosses! Coleridge’s albatross cannot be seen, as you say, since he is conceptual, but he is best pictured, I think, in Gustave DorĂ©’s engravings. I am drawn to your description of the bantams’ pure physicality, their cork-like feel, and to your most contextualized image, the “Mongolian chook” teetering on the roofline and surrounded by scrap lumber.

Adagio said...

'What I usually conclude is that the most beautiful bird of all is the one captivating me right at that moment.'

so true. so true. the same applies to most things i reckon. enjoyment is, none too surprisingly, heavily linked to context. i mean, who hasn't bought a bottle of 'fabulous' wine, on the strength that such a good time had been enjoyed with friends/friend the first time it was drunk, only to find that the wine was, at best, incredibly ordinary or, at worst, nothing short of plonk.

because you mentioned blackbirds (a *big* favourite of mine), i am being so bold as to send you this link to a poem i wrote, inspired by 'lumpy' - very much an avian individual.


this post was really enjoyable pete. thankyou. and ralph is certainly a fine feline specimen, isn't he.

Anonymous said...

Pete--This is wonderful. The whole bag of 'ideas' and 'categories' is one for the theatre--a little play with Aristotle and Foucault. And I thought that Debbie was Coleridge's albatross (or is that the other way around)?

KSG said...

Yay Pete! Have so been looking forward to this post...! Just wish I could see the pics properly (screen resolution gone mad...) "Captivated" is the perfect description - I've had the honour of being captivated by many New Zealand bird species, but I have to say, the Tui is my favourite. I think, because one sings constantly and insistently in our neighbourhood and I have gotten to know his song, and the differentiated songs of his visitors, over the last 24 months. And I believe (correct me if I am wrong!) that all of New Zealand's native "animals" are bird species of some kind - there are no land mammals apparently native to NZ.
PS: Chooks DO have personalities - totally! And they are very smart too, when they choose to be.... *smile* Thank you for the work you put into this - so very much appreciated...

Anonymous said...

Pete - It was nice to see chooks included in your list. I once kept quite a few bantam chickens here at my farm -- Millefleurs, Silver Seabrights, and Silkies. I kept a few domestic ducks and geese as well. They were all wonderful companions. Anyhow, nice list - glad you persisted despite the adversity of the code problems. And your 'Kea' photo is terrific!

Duncan said...

Pete, an excellent exposition of what really is an impossible task. Second Bev's comment re. the Kea photo.

Patry Francis said...

Your birds are very magisterial, but it's Ralph who's stolen my heart.

Zhoen said...

Gotta admit, I love the cats more than the birds.

Anonymous said...

Clare: I think I have to thank you for the tag! Sometimes constraints make things easier. Writing, for example. This certainly made me think.

Thanks Robin; good to have that affirmation that what I've tried to say is shared by so many people.

Cindy: Thankyou :^) You're right: it was difficult, but ultimately rewarding, not least because it gave me the opportunity to mention individual birds like Sir, who might otherwise have waited a long time for a mention.

Schwelmo: Yours must be the most alternative list I've seen so far... but I'm not surprised... ;^P

Debbie: I remember that chook vividly. It's just about to leap down to join the melee over some leftover rice. It's surprising it even remembered to look before it leaped: I love chooks but even I have to admit they're sometimes not the brightest. They have room in their heads for just one thought at a time, and if that thought is “food”, the consequences can be hilarious.

Adagio: I know that thing about wine contexts very well; so true, too. The poem's great; it reminds me so much of Sir, especially that thing about the head feathers. (The blackbird link is now: http://www.tiritirimatangi.org.nz/Fauna/Blackbird.htm).

Larry: Hmmm... a play... now there's an idea ;^) Thanks!

KSG: I wish I knew what was causing the problem with the photos. I tested some last night: three worked perfectly as they used to; the fourth reverted to that problem I mentioned, despite being exactly the same dimensions and resolution as the other three. And, the HTML code was identical except for the file name (which I tried changing, to no avail).
Tui certainly are wonderful. Here at Eastbourne where I'm housesitting, a couple of tui have been going for it in the nearby trees. Wonderful to hear and watch. I love that unmistakeable whirr of wings, too.

Bev: I know those breeds of bantams. I wonder how many we'll lose, despite the good efforts of the rare breeds people. Even the once-ubiquitous, now-rare Rhode Island Reds still to be found here in NZ are pretty scrappy compared with those I remember from my childhood. Kea are almost unbelievably intelligent, and I reckon you can see it that guy's eyes (yes, the long beak confirms he's a male).

Thanks Duncan :^) While I was photographing the kea, his mate was sneaking round behind me to check out my pack. Teamwork of the highest order.

Patry: I think the pecking order in this house is becoming clear: Ralph, then me. It's taking every ounce of resolution not to do whatever he asks of me...

Zhoen, I hope I never have to choose between birds and cats. Ironic, I suppose.

Schwelmo said...

By looking at your bird pictures: Are they actually aware of you and looking at/in your camera or do they look somewhere else??

Anonymous said...

Hi Schwelmo. I wasted a heap of time last night trying to respond, but blogger kept falling over and dumping what I'd written... Fingers crossed this time.

I have no doubt they're aware of me, even if they're not looking directly at the camera, AND they're looking elsewhere too. It's part of being a wild bird — if you're not perpetually vigilant, you get eaten. In fact, I can't ever recall being able to sneak up on a bird unless I've been completely hidden by a ridge or building or something similar; even then, as soon as I peer around to see the bird, it will see me immediately. I find it almost always best to let them see me clearly, and slowly move towards them at an angle (never directly). Looking directly at birds often makes them nervous, too (it can do the same to me!). I try not to disturb them — when you make them anxious, you're interrupting their feeding or other activities. Consideration and respect for the life I'm photographing is what's most important.

Anonymous said...

Very beautiful birds! Thank you for sharing that! You create new ideas of beauty:)