The bird of my dreams


I have fallen in love with pukeko – these absurd and insouciant birds. My local friends scorn my new attachment. They tell me that pukeko are an unsuitable subject of affection, but of course I won’t listen, and anyway I don’t care what they say. I’m besotted with them.

What I love about them most is their sense of comic timing. These birds are the natural comedians of the bird world, and their daily rituals make me laugh with delight. Top of my list of pukeko pleasures is their careful – their extravagantly, exaggeratedly careful – walk. Like a drunk mimicking the characteristics of a sober friend.

One pukeko foot comes up – and then it stops in mid air while the pukeko looks around. At this stage it appears to be deep in thought, contemplating its next move or the mysteries of the universe: I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess.

Time passes. The foot stays up. I hold my breath in admiration – because, after all, it’s Some Foot we’re talking about here. A very large bright orangey-red one, in fact, and surprisingly slender and fragile, at the end of an equally slender bright orangey-red leg. Just poised in mid air.

Maybe the pukeko is waiting for laughter or applause? No, the foot’s come down again, and it’s the other foot’s turn for aerial indecision.

This extended performance is only the start of the show. There’s still the running to come – and the running’s the highlight, it’s what you’ve really been waiting to see. There it goes – head down and white feathered bum right up in the air, streaking away across the fields, legs speeding, little wings flapping in the air like elbows on a clown.

Oh, they can fly if they want to, if they really have to, but they mostly don’t. For sheer joy from a watcher’s point of view, though, a flying pukeko probably wins the most points. Those absurd legs and feet dangle down helplessly, even maybe dangerously, while the wings flap ever more frantically to clear a fence, or a tree, or just to keep that big blue body in the air. It looks dashing and perilous, and borderline impossible, a pukeko flying.

But like all great comedians, pukeko carry a secret sorrow in their hearts. I’m fairly sure I know what that sorrow is: it’s their tragically appalling road sense. They do that hovering trick at the edge of roads, seemingly indecisive, legs a-quiver with unspoken questions.

Shall I? Shan’t I? Which way? Any way? Oh all right then – off I go!

And then they try to throw themselves under the wheels of your car.

If you were walking down the road they’d see you as a danger; it’s cars they don’t seem to rate on the danger scale. And like cats, they don’t seem to learn from the sad fate of their friends and relations, they just keep right on throwing themselves at cars.

The only good thing is, their secret sorrow doesn’t seem to be terminal for the species. There are lots more pukeko around now, than when I grew up in New Zealand. So my love affair can bloom and thrive.

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