Big ups to the bit­tern

Like Miss Universe, only for birds – it’s the Bird of the Year com­pe­ti­tion.

Element - - Travel - TE RADAR RADAR’S RANT

It could be said that For­est and Bird’s up­com­ing Bird Of The Year com­pe­ti­tion is merely a tawdry or­nitho­log­i­cal pop­u­lar­ity con­test waged by peo­ple with too much time on their hands.

I have stated as much my­self when look­ing at the gra­tu­itous hype gen­er­ated by some of the birds’ am­bas­sadors over the course of the cam­paign. But then per­haps I was a tad bit­ter.

I was the cham­pion of the Skua in 2012, and man­aged to raise its to­tal vote tally from 13 in 2011 to 27. A tri­umph. Or it would have been had there not been a to­tal of 10,223 votes cast. I rea­soned that it wasn’t so much my cam­paign­ing skills that let the Skua down; it’s more that it’s a prob­lem­atic bird for peo­ple to love.

Amongst other quirky traits Skua are klep­topar­a­sites. Rather than dive into frigid waters them­selves, they wait for other birds to catch fish then as­sail them, forc­ing them to re­gur­gi­tate their catch, pro­vid­ing the skua with a pre-warmed ready meal. It’s a clever, if not ex­actly an ad­mirable pe­cu­liar­ity.

What re­ally at­tracted me to them though was a won­der­ful pho­to­graph taken by Skua ex­pert Pro­fes­sor Euan Young. The photo is of a Skua nest. The nest, which sits on a patch of rough gravel, con­sists solely of a few dozen rust­ing nails and screws that the dot­ing par­ents had pil­laged from some­where and crudely strewn about to form a rudi­men­tary pile. In the cen­tre are two mot­tled tan eggs. How could you not love a bird that does that?

With no dis­re­spect to the skua, this year I have a new

“We’re a na­tion of crea­tures that just can’t be both­ered tak­ing to the air.”

love, the Matuku, or as it is more com­monly known, the Australasian Bit­tern.

Like many New Zealand birds they are their own worst enemy. There are less than 1000 of them. This is no sur­prise as their de­fence strat­egy is to sim­ply stand erectly up­right, their bills point­ing sky­wards, and re­main ex­tremely still in the hope they won’t be seen.

It’s not par­tic­u­larly ef­fec­tive against preda­tors but their brown plumage makes ex­cel­lent cam­ou­flage, and it does mean that most peo­ple have never seen one, and thus few peo­ple know they even ex­ist.

I’ve only ever seen one alive, and that was a few weeks ago at Massey Univer­sity’s Wild­base wildlife hos­pi­tal of which I am an am­bas­sador. It’s a role I rel­ish not only be­cause they are the only hos­pi­tal of their kind in the coun­try, but pri­mar­ily be­cause it al­lows me to gawp at, and fon­dle, a lot of en­dan­gered birds.

The bit­tern was in iso­la­tion in what ap­peared to be a sky­line garage be­cause it is so timid that it can’t be around any other birds, or too many peo­ple. I can re­late to that.

So when the com­pe­ti­tion for the Bird of the Year starts at the end of the month don’t rush in and vote based solely on shal­low charisma. Take a gan­der at all of the en­tries, or in­deed sug­gest your own. Look for the quirky, or the in­com­pe­tent.

I’d be tempted to sug­gest we should also in­clude out poor ne­glected bats, the only land mam­mals here prior to man’s ar­rival. They make great hon­orary birds, even though, like many of their feath­ered com­pa­tri­ots, the Short Tailed Bat nearly aban­doned fly­ing as well, and is the only bat to adapt to ground hunt­ing. We’re a na­tion of crea­tures that just can’t be both­ered tak­ing to the air.

So, I say, “don’t be bit­ter, vote for the bit­tern.” Or should that be “Once bit­tern, twice shy?” “You’ll be bit­ten by the bit­tern?”

I think the skua may be relieved to be rid of me.

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