Monday, August 23, 2010

Courtship Etiquette

"How necessary it is that the utmost caution should be exercised in forming our attachments."

Although the weather gives no hint of spring anytime soon, all avifauna is proclaiming it. 'The Etiquette of Love and Courtship' is a small pocket-book which carries advice for lovers, collected from the 1850s onwards. I feel a certain overlap between its' intended human audience and the more feathery-covered class of animals.

Some birds change their plumage in order to attract the best mate, and most often it is the male who is more brightly or intrically coloured:
"If the lady to whom you are paying your addresses is possessed of taste and discernment, you will act properly in submitting to her judgement with regard to your dress."

Some birds choose a different partner every season:
"The man who obtains the good graces of woman in general, is seldom worth the regard of any one in particular ... Of all before our observation, the most loathsome is the female coquette. Men are flirted with, and true affection becomes a sport."

Some birds* have (ahem) interesting mating behaviours:
"Some men are ever ready to disguise their real character and it is no easy matter for a lady to scan it. He may have all the traits of a gentleman - a handsome exterior and well-skilled in points of etiquette - but these are not sufficient to constitute an agreeable home companion."
* read up about stitchbird (hihi) mating behaviour sometime

Some birds mate for life:
"Domestic happiness can be secured by endeavouring to meet with a companion whose disposition, temper and whole deportment will bear the strictest scrutiny."

Birds cannot write, but instead sing to communicate with each other:
"Express your meaning as freely as possible. There is still something requisite towards the writing of a polite and agreeable letter and that is an air of good breeding."

Yes, just over a month to daylight savings, and those of the hollow bones are already preening, displaying, courting and ......... it seems some have been at it for a while!

Friday, August 13, 2010


Today's been cold, grey, windy and frankly a rather dreary day. Putting the weather to good use, I curled up on the couch with a book I've been longing to read for a while. Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, is an exploration of the essence and nature of all things avian. Swaddled in a cosy blanket and fortified with a cup or two of chai, I have been lost in a world of hummingbird rehabilitation, pigeon racing and cassowary chasing.

If you have seen the YouTube phenomenon of Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo dancing, you'll be interested to read the chapter regarding him and other parrots that talk or have a notion of rhythm, something which has only recently been accepted in the scientific world.

But by far my most favourite of chapters was on raptors (surprise surprise). As the author writes, "Birds are wild in a way that we don't experience in our relationships with our fellow mammals. And nothing, I found, brings us closer to the pure wildness of birds than working with a hawk."

Reading this section brought to mind all the times when I have been awed by these carnivores of the sky and the realisation of being privileged indeed to study them and try to understand a part of their world.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


In the last couple weeks, two friends have been kind enough indulge my weirdness and complete change into scientist. Transcripts of the conversations follow ...

'J' sent me a text message about how he was driving down out of Auckland for work for the day. I reply with a comment on all the harriers to be seen out in the country. J responds with "I almost hit one with the ute."
Me: um, ok, so I know this is a bit weird, but if you should hit one, or if you find one ... could you collect it for me?
J: yeah no worries

'S' tells me "I think I saw a dead harrier just before the motorway onramp on my way home."
Me: oooh, I'd love it. Can you drive by slowly tomorrow and get a better look?
(The next day)
S: sorry, I didn't get a chance to stop this afternoon. I was gonna go at lunch, but then I thought what would I do with it for the afternoon.
Me: don't you have a freezer at your work??
S: yes, but I don't think my workmates would be very happy if I did that

What surprised me the most about these two conversations was that both friends were quite unconcerned about it all. It is not a normal, everyday occurrence to collect dead birds off roadsides and neither of them seemed to bat an eyelid over my request. In the end there was no collection of specimens, which I feel is a good thing for our friendships, as I'm sure they both secretly think I'm mad and delivery of a bird carcass would have only served to confirm their suspicions!