Scoop Review of Books

Take Flight

Book Review
Bird Words: New Zealand writers on birds
Edited by Elisabeth Easther (Vintage $35)
Reviewed by Wendy Montrose

bird_words_cover_webBirds excite a kind of joyful melancholy in us; from the humble sparrow to the lofty eagle we are in awe and envious at once of their gift of flight. They feature in myths and legends, on nation’s crests and money and we identify with them; we can be as proud as an eagle or wise as an owl. We mourn the loss of species and go to great lengths to save the ones we have left because without birds, we would be much poorer.

Bird Words takes the reader on a New Zealand journey on the wings of its birds both native and introduced. Starting with an extract from Witi Ihimaera’s Sky Dancer on the legendary origin of our birds, we travel through man’s arrival and exploitation of the pristine wilderness he stumbled upon at the bottom of the world to finally reaching the realisation of what he has and what the future would be like without them. The poems, short stories, articles and extracts from longer works, by 62 New Zealand writers from the past 150 years, almost mirror the journey we have made as a nation.

There is a wide selection of material from famous and lesser known writers, Sam Hunt rubs shoulders with 12-year-old Abby Mason, and from contemporary and historic writers, David Hill with Herbert Guthrie-Smith. Informative articles like Hal Smith’s exposition on the fight to save the black robin, alternate with fanciful ditties, Jon Gadsby’s Moa, reflective verse from the likes of Owen Marshall in his poem Refuge about where birds go in the wind, and thought provoking prose from past and present. You will discover which of our endangered birds were kept as pets, how naturalists discovered the Haast’s eagle, what made it easy for sparrows to spread throughout the country, why it’s dangerous to cycle in spring and which birds you will find on Tiritiri Matangi. You could dip in and sample each titbit but I enjoyed reading it from beginning to end.

A small book. Bird Words is beautifully presented with reproductions of Lily Daff’s illustrations, commissioned by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand in the 1920s, scattered throughout. And the front and back inside covers feature the collective nouns of birds; round of robins, muster of storks, scoop of pelicans. It adds a nice finish to a book any bird fancier would love to own.