(Image source: James Barker at freedigitalphotos.net)
A funny thing happened to me on the way to this office this morning. That, in itself, is quite peculiar. My office – a basement separate from the rest of the house – is, literally, ten steps down from my front door.
Anyway, there I was enjoying the sun, looking out at the green hills in the distance when this wee bird suddenly flaps down and starts hovering right in front of me at eye level, staying in place through some pretty deft, and probably exhausting, wing work.
We both kinda stayed there, staring at each other for several moments, me in shock, him in – I don’t really know what; challenge, outrage, curiosity, impossible to tell. Finally, the wing work must have got too much for him for he suddenly whipped around and disappeared out of sight. I hung around for a few minutes, wondering if he was going to come back and trying to figure out why he’d acted in such an of odd manner. Was he some kind of oblique teachtaire – messenger? Had he mistaken me for some kind of territorial invader? The only realistic possibility I could come up with was that he was trying to draw me away from a nest (seen that behaviour quite frequently in the past) but it seemed unlikely there was a nest at the front of the house and I’m pretty sure it’s out of nesting season.
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this but I actually have no idea what kind of bird it was. My best guess would be some kind of chaffinch but I really don’t know. That’s something I’ve noticed over the years I’ve spent in New Zealand. As an emigrant in another country, living for the most part in the city, I‘m embarrassingly unfamiliar with the native wildlife. I’d like to think that if I was back in Cork, this would be different and, to be fair, it probably would. I’m much more familiar with the native fauna back there. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the country as a kid and I have a pretty good grasp of Irish birds and other mammals and their behaviours. These days, I’m also much more acquainted with the folklore around them, the myths and stories we took for granted as kids.
Here in New Zealand, my interaction with my physical environment is much more stilted. I’m not that familiar with the varieties of birdlife or their birdsong (although I’ve learned to recognise some of them). More importantly I’m not familiar with the associated folklore and stories about them. As a result, I’m also ignorant of their long-term interaction with humans here. This means my interaction with my physical environment is stilted, making my connection to New Zealand more tenuous and my experience of the country that much more limited.
Back in Ireland, even up to the not so distant past, people interacted more intensively with their environment. From many years of careful and extended observation, they learned lessons on how to best ensure their own survival. As a reaching tool for their descendants, they also created stories and sayings to pass on this acquired knowledge. For example: Má lábhríonn an chuach ar chrann gan duilliúr, díol do bhó and ceannaigh arbhar (If the cuckoo calls on a leafless tree sell your cow and buy corn). Meaningless words to today’s city-dwelling audience but practical advice to a farmer in the past.
Irish draoi (druids) were also said to be able to prophesise the future from the movement of birds and, to an extent, I get that. Anyone who’s sat down and put the time into observing bird populations in their local environment will be able to identify behavioural trends for climate events, feeding patterns and unusual environmental events that might change those trends. As I said earlier, this takes time – a lot of time – and as I sit here thinking of my teachtaire this morning, it seems clear to me that I have a long wait ahead of me.