21.5.08

kaka, kea, kakariki, kakapo


I get most of my books in second hand shops. Not sure why I prefer this kind of buying - perhaps it's the vertigo that a well-stocked shop full of brand new titles induces; maybe just because I'm cheap; or it could be that amongst the already-read you find things you've not only never heard of, but never imagined. Course, the ratio of misses to hits is fairly high but, on reflection, no higher than among the never-before-read. And you can always afford to take a punt. I went up to Newcastle last weekend with a book in my bag that is one of the best novels I've read. The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman, published in this edition by Faber and Faber in 1994. (If you go here you'll find a brief account of both the man and the circumstance out of which he wrote the book.) Two fifty it says on the flyleaf, but I can't recall if it came from St Vinnies or Anglicare. No matter. I was thinking about Bellingshausen's parrots on the way up, the story as told by Alan Moorehead in the Appendix to The Fatal Impact ($2.00, Vinnies, a hardback Reprint Society edition from 1966). The Russian explorer - well, actually, he was a Baltic German from one of the Estonian islands, but the expedition itself was Russian - paused to refit at Port Jackson in 1820 on his way back from the Pacific Islands. He and his crew became enamoured of Australian birdlife and when they left Sydney took with them on the Vostok and the Mirnyi 84 birds, including cockatoos, parrots, doves, a lory and a parakeet, along with a small kangaroo that was allowed to hop around the deck.


The astonishing thing about this event is that Bellingshausen was heading south, to resume the circumnavigation of Antarctica that he had broken off during the southern winter. The navigators seemed surprised when, at higher latitudes, the birds declined to sing. And that, even though they were kept in cages below decks, nevertheless began to die. One, a black cockatoo - whether red-tailed or yellow-tailed I do not know - collapsed after eating a stuffed kookaburra. On Macquarie Island, so early, fur seals had already been exterminated and the sealers were killing sea-elephants; whether, as in some other places, they were rendering them down using live penguins as fuel, is not recorded; but Bellingshausen was one of the last to see alive the parrot indigenous to the island, which the sealers were eating, along with albatross eggs.


In 1821, the circumnavigation complete and the southern continent observed, perhaps for the very first time, the two ships turned for home; as they sailed into warmer waters off the Atlantic coast of South America the surviving birds were brought up on deck after three and a half months below and at once burst into song. One parrot escaped and climbed into the rigging. A sailor was sent aloft to recapture it but it flew away and then tried to settle on, or fell into, the water ahead of the ship. A pole was thrust out towards it and the bird managed to grasp it, holding on so tightly it did not let go for hours. I do not know what happened to these birds after the voyage was over; but when, in the excellent Indigo bookshop in Newcastle I came across Parrot, by Paul Carter ($10.00, Reaktion Books, 2006), I hoped that it might tell me. Carter doesn't rehearse this story however, although he tells fragments of many others; and the illustrations (101, 77 in colour) in his small paperback are superb. One thing he says interests me particularly. Three New Zealand parrots, the kaka, the kea and the kakapo, are thought to be the most ancient species of the bird in the world: ur-parrots. I've never seen the latter two birds but, one lunch time, Jill Jones told me an enthralling account of her meeting with some kea on the slopes of the Southern Alps.


At the same shop I also picked up a copy of a recent life of William Dampier, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind by Diana and Michael Preston ($9.00, Doubleday, 2004). I had this book out of the Sydney Public Library last month and did not wish to take it back. The title comes from a remark S. T. Coleridge made about the Old Pyrating Dog. I'm not sure if it is in this biography or another that I came across the information that on one his voyages, his last, on the Duchess, Dampier carried a one legged cook by the name of John Silver. With or without a parrot on his shoulder.


The four NZ parrots illustrated are in the order given in the title; the third is of a kind of parakeet that still lives on some sub-antarctic islands, thought to be related to the extinct Macquarie Island variety.

4 comments:

artandmylife said...

I am lucky to have seen all of these birds. In fact last year a kak landed on my deck - must have been on the way to or from Kapiti Island. My 5 year-old took a book of NZ birds to school today for'news' that I picked up for her for $1 (2nd hand). I had a copy when I was a kid and it has great photos.

Martin Edmond said...

It was on Kapiti that I first saw a kaka - they're big, aren't they? And more red/orange than in this pic. Apparently kakapo are the biggest parrot of all. As well as the most obscure.

artandmylife said...

Yep - big and very distinctive. Kakapo are very cuddly - like big soft stuffed toys. My favourites though are Stewart Island Kiwis that poke about during the day quite often - they are huge.

Richard Taylor said...

This is fascinating about Howard Norman - I sell used books BTW (Aspect Books on www.abebooks.com) - I have a book about Lear for sale. I found the account of Howard Norman fascinating - the book sounds extraordinary - I found a book ("Wrestling the The Angel" by Stan Perksy) - I had never heard of him but his diaristic /poetry style interested me) recently at the Hard to Find by a Canadian writer - it looked interesting -I was pleased when I found he had known Jack Spicer well as I am interested in his work - but the point is I also took "punt" on him... didn't know who he was or that he knew Spicer etc... even before I was selling books at the K Road Markets and on the Net I was addicted to s/h book shops ...of course I also find books at op shops and so on...

This is another interesting entry by you Martin - birds are amazing - stange the history.