Thursday, October 1, 2009
Voting is already under way in 2009's most brutal high stakes political battle - the Forest and Bird Society's Bird of the Year poll. A scroll down the current standings reveals plenty of birds that have sunk to employing murky political ties and celebrity endorsements (1, 2, 3) to sell their case. There is one bird in this race that can speak for itself. There is an expression used in Māori to describe the most gifted orators: “Ka rite ki te kopara e ko nei I te ata”, like the bellbird singing in the morning. Listen to Radio New Zealand's recording of of the bellbird's song and you'll see why it's such an honour to be compared to kopara (also known as korimako and mokamako)
I'm sure I heard bellbirds growing up in the Wairarapa but there are parts of the world that young men are just insensible to. The first time I really noticed the bellbird's song was, of all the places in the world, on Castle St in Dunedin. That street may be famed for its annual riot but it's also adjacent to the Botanical Gardens and part of Dunedin's very large greenbelt. In Dunedin bellbrids make their way into the city at the start of winter and on this day a chorus of perhaps ten birds was calling as they flew up and down the stand of trees that run alongside the Leith at the southern end of the gardens. I can't describe the song, or the feeling of being struck by it, without drifting into awful prose-poetry (I'm just not skilled enough as a writer to be trusted with words like ecstasy or mellifluous) so I'll let Joseph Banks describe the experience:
They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginableThe other bellbird encounter that has really stuck in my mind happened in the Kahurangi National Park. I was a fair way from the beaten path on the trail of log dwelling invertebrates when I heard a single note ring out perhaps 20 metres away from me. A few seconds later a reply, again a single note this one a tone or two higher than the first, came from 50 metres to the other side. For the next few minutes I was in the middle of this pair's duet of rolling, liquid peels. It was an amazing privilege to get to hear that song and to be part of that pair's territory for the next couple of hours as they flew, wings whirring, from trunk to trunk.
It's hard to delight in the bellbird's song without thinking about how much of the chorus that Banks was so enthusiastic about is now lost to us. We'll never hear a piopio or a huia sing and few of us will ever get a chance to listen to a pair of kōkako. At the turn of the 20th century it was generally thought the bellbird would go the same way but it has since recovered to the point that is not uncommon in gardens in Dunedin and parts of Christchurch and is even staging a comeback in Wellington thanks to the Karori Sanctuary. New Zealander's should embrace the bellbird, not just for its beautiful song but because it is a reminder of a much more diverse chorus that once filled our forests, for that reason I urge everyone to Vote Bellbird in '09
Actually, in a way it kind of sucks to see all those birds only getting something like 100/6000. They all deserve to win. Hell, even the blackbirds and sparrows.