black bird next to a hand


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.