Malcolm

black bird next to a hand

Malcolm

Malcolm arrived on Christmas day, found on the footpath; a tiny, scrawny, featherless entity with a huge appetite. A fledgling of some sort, possibly a myna. He was basically all beak (large, squawking with yellow around the edges) and behind that, a small balding head with a few wisps of black feathery stuff sticking out the top. He did nothing for the first couple of weeks but squawk, eat and excrete. He lived in a box in the laundry. A tea towel was draped over it at night and the laundry door was firmly shut. Bumping sounds could be heard for a few minutes after lights-out but he would then quieten down until morning when he would start calling out again, needing to be fed.

He was always ravenous and loved pre-soaked cat food, bits of orange and most of all, honey water. He once tried some pale yellow honey from an orchard and savored it like a Master Sommelier. But honey that had somehow come into contact with garlic (via a chopping board) was rejected with utter disdain.

There was a bad episode when he choked on a piece of orange. He coughed and spluttered, little rib cage heaving. We thought we had lost him. By this stage he was hopping around and disappeared into the neighbor’s giant impatiens bush. A vet was really out of the question. We hovered desperately. Then he hopped back into view and with a gigantic contraction, a huge quantity of undigested orange pulp squirted out his rear end. Triumph. His parents had to calm shattered nerves with alcoholic beverages.

Early in his childhood we had a party on the deck – this by now being the middle of summer. Malcolm was put in his box under the house but was not happy with his state of exile and demanded to meet the other guests; a little squawking figure hopping madly up and down, shrouded in the tea towel that had fallen off to envelope him. He came upstairs and sucked honey water off my finger to everyone’s general delight. Then we noticed a sinister intruder. A very large tui was sitting in the stunted little avocado tree we had planted in a pot. It was quite close to the house. Malcolm seemed nervous. It was at that point that we began to question his genetic origins. Finally, after about 6 weeks and once proper feathers started to appear, it became apparent that he was a tui.

Malcolm taught himself to fly. He started by practicing in his box. He would jump from one side to the other, then hop up in the air, exhibit a perfect 1800 turn, and hop back. Initially, like a child learning to swim, he did “widths” but after a while he graduated to “lengths” of the box and then with a few more flaps would get up to the coat hook on the back of the laundry door. In the morning we would find him there listening to the dawn chorus of tuis and other birds in the Grevillea tree outside. After a while he was flying around the kitchen. Then he started to go outside. He was provided with a feeder, made from a small cane basket with a platform between the handles. Malcolm could conveniently perch on one handle and lean forward to sip honey water from his bowl and nibble at tasty morsels left on the tray. He still preferred to feed from my finger (reverting to babyhood) but had to be weaned. He drank awkwardly to start with, using his beak in a funny tilted way, slopping honey water out the side, but eventually he got the hang of it. After a while we discovered that he had an extraordinary tongue. This evolutionary development allows tuis to sup honey from the bottom of the long necked flax flowers of the NZ bush. We gained direct knowledge of the tui tongue. He would flick it into the ear (tickling the drum), or up the nose (tickling the brain). The latter was excruciating.

About 6 weeks after his arrival, Malcolm was living permanently in the Grevillea tree outside the back door. He was also flying quite well. It had not rained for several weeks but one night there was a downpour. In the morning, a poor little drowned wretch appeared, oozing indignation. He was shivering, so I put my hands around his body as he sat on the perch and made a kind of warm ”overcoat” for him, with his little black head sticking out the top. He stopped shivering quite quickly and we stayed like that for some minutes before he wriggled out and took off. I think that is my favourite memory of him. By this time, Malcolm was as much a family pet as any cat or dog. He would fly down to greet us when we came home. You could the feel the love radiating out of his heart like the beam from a torch as he flew towards you. He generally landed on an outstretched hand but sometimes made for the head. Perhaps my hair made him think of nesting materials.

Another favourite trick was sitting on my husband’s shoulder while he (the husband) watered the garden and had a beer. Small flying insects would also be “watered” and Malcolm would fly down and snap them up as they flopped around helplessly, their wings stuck together. Then it was back to his vantage point to watch for further morsels. We also saw him catching insects on the wing with incredible accuracy and speed. There were altercations over territory with other tuis living in “his” tree. One day after work I went out to the terrace and called for Malcolm as usual. I spotted him in the tree but he seemed unwilling to come to me. Then, as he launched himself into the air, a large tui at least twice his size, zoomed in on the starboard wing, heading him off. I squawked in alarm and flapped my hands ineffectually. Malcolm flew into the ground at my feet and staggered up to me on his legs, trembling. Full of fierce maternal instinct, I shouted at the big tui and took Malcolm back to the deck for honey water. After that he must have established his place with the other birds as I witnessed no more acts of aggression.

The day was coming for us to leave Auckland. Malcolm’s behaviour started to change. He would take longer to come when we called and seemed to be keeping company with a couple of other tuis. He wouldn’t play the insect-catching game any more and was away for longer spells. When he did deign to fly to us on the deck it was not for long and he would keep glancing around. “Hi Mum, Dad, can I have the car keys please …?” We must have been embarrassing as parents – wrong shape, far too big, unable to fly. At last he did not come. It was a wrench. A few discrete tears were shed but of course we knew it was much better that he return to the wild.

A year later I thought of Malcolm again when I heard that the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) had dropped aerial 1080 for “pest control” on Auckland’s Waitakere ranges, very near our old home. Tuis are not supposed to be susceptible to 1080 as they are nectar-eaters but I later found evidence that this chemical certainly kills insects and insect-eating birds. I remembered the game with the hose. The apostle Luke said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?”. I am sure tuis are not forgotten either.

Poisoning a priceless treasure

bird in grass

Poisoning a priceless treasure

Members of the older generation may remember the world-wide excitement in 1948 when Dr Geoffrey Orbell and two companions discovered a small group of takahe (notornis hochstetti) in the remote Murchison mountains of Fiordland. These large, ungainly, and brightly coloured birds, which are somehow reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s dodo, were previously thought to have been extinct for more than 50 years. Dr Orbell captured two birds in a net, took photographs and then released them. He returned to civilisation, according to one correspondent, “in a state of ornithological ecstasy”. If Dr Orbell were with us now, I imagine the recent reports of takahe deaths caused by 1080 poison, administered by our own Department of Conservation (DoC), could well have induced a state of ornithological apoplexy. Who could blame him? We human inhabitants of these isles are after all the guardians of this priceless treasure, known to Ngai Tahu as a taonga and enshrined as such within the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement Act of 1998. 

 

Until now much of the takahe news has been positive. DoC has undertaken a programme of relocating birds to island sanctuaries and breeding them in captivity with considerable success. There have been deaths – most notably 4 birds killed accidentally by DoC contractors in 2015 – but recently there has been an encouraging rise in the population from 263 in 2013 to 418 announced in 2019 by the Minister of Conservation, Eugenie Sage, with considerable fanfare. It must therefore have come as a nasty shock to many bird lovers to read in ‘Stuff’ on the 26th August 2020 that 3 takahe had died after an aerial 1080 drop in Kahurangi National Park at the top of the South Island. All deaths have now been confirmed on toxicological testing as definitely due to 1080 poisoning – a result that the Takahe Recovery Programme Operations Manager Deidre Vercoe described mildly as “disappointing”. Three among 18 monitored birds represents a whopping 16% mortality for the operation. Surely more disastrous than disappointing. How and why did this happen?

 

Takahe were relocated to the Gouland Downs region of the South Island’s Kahurangi National Park in 2018 to try to establish another mainland population outside the Murchison mountains. Consistent with DoC’s preference for using aerial 1080 to control predators, the region was subjected to a poison drop on August 16 and 17 of 2020. There must have been some quivers of doubt as to the wisdom of dropping a non-selective and deadly poison directly into this new takahe habitat and accordingly an exclusion zone of 587 hectares was defined where no bait was applied. Takahe were moved into this region prior to the drop but apparently some birds simply wandered out into the danger zone and consumed the poisoned bait.

 

This shameful event was entirely predictable. Takahe, along with many other native birds, including the fantail, the South Island robin, the tomtit and the kea, are likely to be very vulnerable to 1080 poison. Nobody had actually dropped 1080 on top of them before so we did not know that for sure. Now we do. Poisoning large areas within our national parks is reckless in the extreme but is always justified by DoC’s blithe assertion that 1080 will kill predators effectively and that this reduction in predation will “justify” bird deaths from deliberate 1080 poisoning. The evidence for this is flimsy at best and non-existent in the case of the takahe. What is more, why shouldn’t a predator such as a stoat also simply shelter in the exclusion zone while the noisy helicopters send down their deadly rain of green pellets, and then saunter back out a few days later to carry on  predating? This exclusion zone would not have been protected by a predator proof fence, and neither would the 1080 zone. Did DoC really expect wild fauna to stay within their proscibed regions just because they wanted them to?

 

If this were an isolated event it could be forgivable but it is not. Kea deaths from 1080 continue to be reported and this is now another threatened species. In March 2020, 6 kea recovered from the Matukituki valley in Mt Aspiring National Park were reported to have died from the 1080 toxin, (post-mortem findings from Massey University) following an aerial operation on 11 February. In total 12 kea were tracked after the poison drop so this represented a 50% mortality rate, reported again as “upsetting and disappointing” by the DoC representative (particularly for the kea one would assume). The year before, 2 out of 13 kea deaths were attributed to 1080 after a poison drop on the West Coast. According to independent scientist Dr Jo Pollard, “using DoC’s own data, we can estimate that each poisoning operation will kill an average 12% of kea. During the most horrific example DoC managed to kill 78% of the tracked kea population (7 of 9 kea monitored at North Okarito).”

 

It is not too late to cease and desist as far as the use of 1080 is concerned. Trapping can control predators in many areas. A maxim of bioethics is “Primum non nocere” (First do no harm). Lets change our approach to pest control now and ditch the use of this deadly poison before our rarest and most precious birds are consigned to extinction.

  

Fiona McQueen MBChB MD FRACP

Consultant Rheumatologist, Southland Hospital

 

Author: The Quiet Forest: the case against aerial 1080 (Tross Publishing)

Roderick and the Wizard of Endor

Roderick, a small and furry animal, gazes out from his home high on the side of a mountain. Not far below, a tiny figure is swept from the path by the wind. He races to the rescue and saves Pepin, a squirrel, but when they climb back up to Roderick’s home they find that it has been destroyed.
Seeking shelter in the stormy night, Roderick and Pepin narrowly escape a dangerous band of vagabonds. Soon after they encounter Percy, the invisible man. He tells them how he was lured by leprechaun gold into another dimension and became trapped there by enchantment.
Roderick and Pepin decide to help him and are transported into a mysterious world of tree spirits, elves and other magical beings. Only the Wizard of Endor can break the spell that binds Percy. The three friends set out to find the Wizard in his castle high in the mountains of Endor but a terrifying monster lies in wait.

Author: Fiona McQueen is a medical doctor, professor and internationally acclaimed academic who changed career direction five years ago and moved away from the city to live with in beautiful Glenorchy, a small town in the alpine region of the South Island. The surrounding landscape was used as the background for much of The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. While continuing her medical specialist work Fiona has begun a new career as an author. She is a committed environmentalist, enthusiastic tramper, yoga fanatic, fledgling herbalist and mother and has had a lifelong interest in children’s literature. Fiona’s previous book is The Quiet Forest: the case against 1080.