Kafkaworld's Blog

November 21, 2013

On Muttonbirds

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 Muttonbird: what an ugly name for such a beautiful bird.  For this horrendous nomenclature we have to blame an officer of the Royal Marines who called them “the flying sheep” because early settlers on Norfolk Island harvested their close relatives, the providence petrels, for their meat and oil.  Because they nest in shallow burrows, they were easily caught and that particular species of petrel quickly became extinct following annual slaughters of hundreds of thousands of birds.

The muttonbirds of today are the Short-tailed Shearwaters, so called because of their graceful shearing flight moving from centimetres above the water to high in the sky.  Every year, they travel to the Arctic and back to the same burrows on the Eastern coast of Australia from Southern Queensland down to Tasmania, a round trip of 30,000 kilometres.  What an astonishing journey for a seabird weighing around half a kilo.  It’s unsurprising that there are casualties every year which just drop into the sea, starving and exhausted, to wash up on our Eastern beaches.

In the past few weeks, I have seen dozens on Woorim Beach alone and subsequently read reports of much higher than usual numbers failing to make it to their burrows.  This saddens me greatly.  Something is obviously going wrong and it is heartening that there are scientists researching this.  I just wish the current government showed as much interest in environmental problems as they do in demonising asylum seekers.

Anyway, all this put me in mind of a wonderful poem by A.D. Hope.  It’s a little sad but so beautiful.

The Death of the Bird

For every bird there is this last migration;

Once more the cooling year kindles her heart;

With a warm passage to the summer station

Love pricks the course in lights across the chart.

Year after year a speck on the map, divided

By a whole hemisphere, summons her to come.

Season after season, sure and safely guided,

Going away she is also coming home.

And being home, memory becomes a passion

With which she feeds her brood and straws her nest.

Aware of ghosts that haunt the heart’s possession

and exiled love mourning within the breast.

The sands are green with a mirage of valleys;

The palm-tree casts a shadow not its own;

Down the long architrave of temple or palace

Blows a cool air from moorland scarps of stone.

And day by day the whisper of love grows stronger;

That delicate voice, more urgent with despair,

Custom and fear constraining her no longer,

Drives her at last on the waste of leagues of air.

A vanishing speck in those inane dominions,

Single and frail, uncertain of her place,

Alone in the bright host of her companions,

Lost in the blue unfriendliness of space.

She feels it close now, the appointed season:

The invisible thread is broken as she flies;

Suddenly, without warning, without reason,

The guiding spark of instinct winks and dies.

Try as she will, the trackless world delivers

No way, the wilderness of light no sign,

The immense and complex map of hills and rivers

Mocks her small wisdom with its vast design.

And darkness rises from the eastern valleys,

And the winds buffet her with their hungry breath,

And the great earth, with neither grief nor malice,

Receives the tiny burden of her death.

Now I’ve made myself cry but, as I walk along the beach tomorrow, past those fallen bundles of feathery courage, I will again consider the vast distances travelled by these birds, trusting in nature to provide a way.   An absolute miracle.

* information gleaned from the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife web page.

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