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July 11, 2011 | by  | in News |
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Birds Of A Feather

Birds are often admired and envied for their grace in completing an activity that no human can achieve unaided.

Since that first winged silhouette was spotted on the horizon, humans have risked bodily trauma and embarrassment to attain the grace that our feathered friends are born with. From Da Vinci’s flying machines to the efforts of 25 year old Richard Pearse hopefully trundling his invention across a paddock in Waitohi in 1901, generations have sought to leave the encumbrances of a landlocked life.

Even today, with fleets of planes transporting people across oceans and nations like so many eighty tonne taxis, flight is not the stress-free process that it is for sky-dwellers. The most tolerant travellers could be forgiven for losing patience following recent flight disruptions caused by Chilean ash clouds, fluctuating fuel costs, and, in Australia, the grounding of an entire airline by the flight safety watchdog.

Recent media coverage has the potential to comfort the wingless with accounts of birds of a different, more awkward, nature. These are vulnerable, flightless and, some might say, plain silly, creatures—Happy Feet the misdirected emperor penguin, Manukura the white kiwi, and Morgan the hydrophobic penguin. The public can relate to the fallibility of these birds. A penguin doing what penguins are meant to do is unlikely to become a YouTube hit (unless the dulcet tones of Morgan Freeman confer some sort of profound human meaning on to its presences and action) but a penguin swimming 4000 kilometres in the wrong direction to arrive, alone, on Kapiti beach is a story people want to follow.

The emperor penguin which wandered on to New Zealand shores was heralded by the Dominion Post as ‘A Stranger in a Strange Land’. Below this headline, the Dom ran a photo of the penguin discovering one of the unfortunate differences between his new environment and Antarctica—that ingesting sand, in contrast to snow, makes penguins sick, rather than cooling them down.

The fact that the penguin continued to consume sand when it began to feel unwell, and the extent of its navigational misadventure, has caused some people to make unkind comments about the intelligence of Wellington’s Antarctic guest. Tahu Potiki, columnist for The Press described the bird as the “Forrest Gump of the Penguin World”, referring to its apparently stubborn resolution to continue swimming away from the comfort of its homeland. Some called for natural selection to be allowed to take its course, without intervention from concerned bystanders.

The Biodiversity Programme Manager for the Department of Conservation, Peter Simpson initially favoured this approach telling media “We keep our interference with wild animals to an absolute minimum, and this emperor penguin is no exception”.

However, it seems that Simpson did not anticipate the extent of the media coverage that the penguin would receive both nationally and internationally. The story of Happy Feet (a name given to the penguin by Peka Peka Beach resident Christine Wilton) received attention from CNN, The Guardian and The Daily Mail. The local Council provided Happy Feet with a security guard and a group of residents stood watch over the young bird on Saturday evening, reportedly due to concern for the bird’s safety amongst teenagers partying on the beach.

DOC came under increasing pressure to take action rather than its preferred policy of non-intervention. Amongst the emails sent to DOC about Happy Feet and later published in the Dominion Post, a Te Horo resident condemned the “callous treatment” of Happy Feet, which he described as “an exotic creature in a totally alien habitat”. A foreign critic wrote “I was thinking that you were a human [sic] and responsible nation but now I believe that I am wrong”, while an incensed Wellingtonian offered their cold flat as a solution to the problem of finding suitable accommodation for Happy Feet.

Following public outcry, DOC decided to transport Happy Feet to Wellington Zoo, where he has been receiving treatment. If he makes a full recovery, Happy Feet will be released in the Southern Ocean to make his own way back to Antarctica, in a manner similar to the 1967 release of the first emperor penguin to reach New Zealand shores.

Although there have only been two recorded voluntary arrivals of emperor penguins to New Zealand, Wellington Zoo was previously home to Charlie, an emperor penguin who arrived aboard the Government ship, the Tutanekai, in 1921. The Tutanekai also transported seven royal and two king penguins from Charlie’s place of birth, the Antipodes Islands.

Another popular bird about Wellington is Manukura, a white kiwi chick living at the Pukaha Mount Bruce DOC centre. Manukura’s birth was seen by local iwi Te Rangitane o Wairarapa as a tohu, or sign of good things to come. Like Happy Feet, Manukura attracted global attention and the visitor numbers to the Pukaha Mount Bruce centre increased dramatically with close to 1,000 visitors during Manukura’s first month of public viewings. Even though Manukura is nocturnal, he graces visitors with his sleepy presence once a week on Sundays at 2pm. According to the Manawatu Standard, one visitor attempted to purchase Manukura as a gift for his mother. This request was politely declined.

Although concern has been expressed about Manukura being rejected by other kiwi because of his unusual feathers, this is apparently unlikely due to the poor eyesight of kiwi. The main risk that Manukura faces is being spotted by predators, but this would not be such an issue if he only went out in the open during the night time.

Manukura is thought to be the first white kiwi hatched in captivity. In 1913, the Hawera and Normanby Star reported that a white kiwi had been captured in the Taupo district. It was thought that the kiwi would be taken in to captivity in Wellington. However, there is no further mention of the bird until 1914 when the Evening Post, a Wellington publication, ominously noted that “A mat of kiwi feathers, with a border of white, was exhibited at the Philosophical Society’s meeting last night. As the white kiwi is a rara avis, the exhibit created a good deal of interest.”

While not quite in the same league of unusualness as Manukura and Happy Feet, Morgan the white-flippered penguin became a minor celebrity in May. The 16 year-old-penguin was found on Banks Peninsula and transported to the Antarctic Research Centre. Morgan seemed to have lost out in life’s lottery—he was not only a member of the most endangered, smallest penguin species in the world but also suffered from a strong aversion to water. When placed in a paddling pool, Morgan would resolutely clamber out using his beak and flippers. This is not to say that Morgan was completely without talent. Penguin keeper Malorie Hackett described him as a “ladies man”, as two female penguins were reportedly making romantic advances towards the phobic bird.

Although recent birds in the news are unlikely to be mistaken for planes or superheroes, they possess a quality which many New Zealanders and followers overseas respond to. An American teenager donated $3209 (which she received as gifts for her Bat Mitzvah) to aid the New Zealand Kakapo after watching a documentary on rare birds. The kakapo is an oversized, flightless parrot and has been described by Stephen Fry as an old-fashioned looking creature with its “big sideburns and a Victorian gentleman’s face”. Whether strange individually or as a species, birds with a difference look set to make cameo appearances on our television screens and newsprint for the duration of the fluff item’s ancient reign. *

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