Hunters in Australia’s southern states know the mountain duck well. What they may not know is that mounties often stray over The Ditch and when they do, are usually seen in the company of a well-known local, the paradise shelduck.
The resemblance is remarkable: similar plumage, similar grazing habit, even the calls aren’t a million miles apart. They’re obviously close relatives.
‘Parries’ have had a wild ride since humans arrived in these islands — once treated with great respect, then slaughtered — but it turned out all right in the end.
Maori had strict rules around protecting paradise ducks during the breeding season, but later (when the birds were at their fattest) the moult left them flightless and adults and juveniles alike were easy enough to round up off water. They were often preserved in their own rendered fat in kelp tubes — hinu kai to Maori, confit to a French chef.
James Cook was, in his own words, compelled to explore “farther than any other man”. In the summer of 1773 he turned Resolution and his men south of the Antarctic Circle, towards the ice and beyond the edge of the known world.
They sailed a full 117 days without sight of land then limped into deepest Fiordland on the South Island to resupply. From March to May he made notes on the abundant foods to be found in Dusky Sound, including fish and crays.
Duck Cove he named for a particularly fine day’s gunning, Goose Cove for the release site for five birds he had brought from the Cape of Good Hope.
To prevent scurvy, he brewed beer from rimu (a native tree something like spruce) and manuka (tea tree) tips mixed with molasses — the first beer brewed in New Zealand. Several of the crew spotted a mysterious four-legged animal, but “no two could give the same description of it”. The identity of this mystery animal has been the source of speculation ever since, but the words ‘sailors’ and ‘beer’ might be a clue.
Cook made perhaps the first European record of the paradise duck, which he named the painted duck for its ‘very beautiful variegated plumage’. To this day it is known to science as Tadorna variegata. The male is the dark one, while the female has a striking white head.
Cook spent the rest of the time sitting in rain, swatting sandflies, fighting supplejack and probably wishing he had some proper beer. (Fiordland hasn’t changed a lot since.)
Sadly, parries were to take a beating over the next century at the hands of unregulated market gunners. Thousands were sold into the markets of the cities. According to some observers their existence on the North Island was touch and go, and there are even reports of them having to be introduced (or reintroduced) there.
These histories often follow a depressing pattern but the story of the paradise duck takes a happy turn. Since those commercial days New Zealand has converted a lot of bush to pasture, and while that hasn’t helped some native species, it has been a lifesaver for others.
The call of the male is richer and deeper than that of the female. It’s not always a welcome sound. I don’t know how many stalks on a stag, tahr or chamois have been messed up by a pair of parries kicking up a storm of alarm calls.
“Oh dear, there seem to be some paradise ducks obstructing our progress” (or words to that effect), is a frequent story among frustrated big game hunters.
Opinions are divided among waterfowlers on the paradise duck as a table bird, but those opinions more or less reflect kitchen skills. Like most game they are poor when dry roasted, better when cooked moist with stock or orange juice. With a little pork fat and some spices, they make superb smoked salami. A modern duck hunter, following the rules of game management and enjoying these treats through the short days of winter, may not realise that
he is living an echo of some very old customs. We’ve come full circle.
Here in North Canterbury, late summer and autumn fall low and slow. As the nights draw in, morning mists settle on countless fields of wheat and barley stubble. It’s the time of the special parry season, when flocks gather on cut fields — a time of easy, relaxed hunts and straw bale blinds. During the breaks there’s time to reflect upon one of our greatest achievements as a hunting community. The parry is a bird once brought low by mistreatment, but today — thanks to balanced game regulations, agriculture, fencing and planting, ponds and dams (thousands of which were subsidised by hunters’ licence fees) — there are more parries than at any time in history.
Contact with humans is always portrayed as negative, but it’s actually a game of winners and losers — and the humble parry is a winner, without a shadow of a doubt.