Nom­i­nat­ing a new pro­vin­cial bird


Reg­u­lar read­ers of this col­umn will no doubt be fa­mil­iar with my love of spot­ted sand­pipers, the tiny, el­e­gant, vo­cal shore­birds I have writ­ten about be­fore. In fact, I can hear some of you groan­ing now, “Oh me nerves, here he goes again with the shore­bird thing. It must be spring.”

You’re right. It is spring and here I go again.

The part I love most about the spot­ted sand­pipers is that of all the shore­birds on the beaches and in the bogs of this prov­ince, the spot­ted sand­piper is the only na­tive. They are born here, and I marvel ev­ery year at their brav­ery and te­nac­ity in en­dur­ing the first weeks of their lives, start­ing from the early age of 30 min­utes. Dressed only in a thin layer of fluff they alone are re­spon­si­ble for search­ing out their own food in the of­ten harsh con­di­tions this place can dish out dur­ing the on-again, off-again sea­son we call spring.

Their stay-at-home dads are their only pro­tec­tion, their moms hav­ing flown the coop look­ing for love. Chirp­ing or­ders at them, their fathers try to keep them warm, dry and safe from preda­tors. If they re­main alive through the down-cov­ered puff­ball stage un­til they can fly, their chances of sur­vival im­prove dra­mat­i­cally.

Then, like hu­man ado­les­cents feel­ing the first surges of in­de­pen­dence they some­times get cheeky with their fathers and talk back when given in­struc­tions. Just like hu­man kids, par­tic­u­larly young New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans, yearn­ing for still more in­de­pen­dence, they take off.

While the young hu­mans take off on a plane headed west, the sand­pipers, shun­ning the tar ponds of Fort Mac, fly south to the Caribbean where, with luck, they will sur­vive the slicks coat­ing the wa­ter there.

While the young peo­ple and birds head in com­pletely dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, what hap­pens next is just the same. They long to re­turn to where they come from. So they do. They fly home.

Af­ter a sum­mer home though, both birds and hu­mans start to feel the mi­gra­tory urge, and come au­tumn, they’re gone again.

It is the rea­son I would like to nom­i­nate the spot­ted sand­piper as the new pro­vin­cial bird of New­found­land and Labrador. It is na­tive born, but goes away when nec­es­sary, but no sooner gone, can’t wait to get home come sum­mer­time.

I know we al­ready have a pro­vin­cial bird: the puf­fin, or sea par­rot, Frater­cula Arc­tica, or frat to its friends. The puf­fin was de­clared the pro­vin­cial bird in 1991 and good for it. It’s a cute lit­tle crit­ter weigh­ing in at 500 grams, it’s stubby lit­tle wings, span­ning only 55 cen­time­tres, still man­age to pro­pel it up to a sur­pris­ing 80 kilo­me­tres per hour in the air and steer it fast and grace­fully un­der­wa­ter.

Like the spot­ted sand­piper, puffins are na­tive born New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans too, bur­row­ing into the ground for shel­ter, the fe­males lay­ing one egg an­nu­ally dur­ing a life­span of 25 years and not leav­ing home — ever.

In that way, they are sim­i­lar to the ideal their hu­man com­pa­tri­ots dream of, staying home if only they could, perched safely in their cosy sea­side dwellings, dart­ing out ev­ery now and again for a meal of fish.

That is the puf­fin ideal, but the life of the spot­ted sand­piper is more re­al­is­tic.

Why I want to be re­al­is­tic, I can’t re­ally say. My late sis­ter Jane would laugh out loud at the very no­tion of her brother be­ing re­al­is­tic. In ad­di­tion, she would not be very happy that I was propos­ing an­other bird take the place of the puf­fin as the pro­vin­cial bird. Jane loved puffins, and would drive long dis­tances out of her way to see them.

But it was as a col­lec­tor that her ad­mi­ra­tion for the puf­fin knew no bounds. She col­lected pho­tos of puffins, draw­ings, paint­ings, etch­ings, lith­o­graphs and silk screens of puffins. She col­lected puf­fin scarves, hooked mats and wall hang­ings. She had puf­fin wood carv­ings, nap­kin rings and brooches. She was ob­sessed. So ob­sessed that an Aus­tralian film com­pany that was pro­duc­ing a TV se­ries on peo­ple with strange hob­bies sent a crew to Gan­der to shoot a piece about Jane. She be­longed to a group of puf­fin fanciers who com­mu­ni­cated world­wide about ev­ery­thing puf­fin.

Her In­ter­net ad­dress was puf­fin lady. Peo­ple sent her ev­ery kind of puf­fin para­pher­na­lia imag­in­able. Af­ter she died her hus­band found a puf­fin in the freezer. There’s a puf­fin en­graved on Jane’s head­stone in the Tray­town ceme­tery.

Read­ing over the last para­graph, I can see that it would be en­tirely wrong of me to in­sist that the spot­ted sand­piper re­place the puf­fin as the pro­vin­cial bird. That would never do. While it is the spot­ted sand­piper who mir­rors the re­al­ity of life to­day in this prov­ince, the puf­fin ex­presses the ideal life New­found­lan­ders and Labrado­ri­ans as­pire to.

Maybe we could have two pro­vin­cial birds. They could work to­gether to rep­re­sent this prov­ince. We could call it a coali­tion.

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