Steve Braunias looks at the one thing that isn't in lockdown – birds
Everything is falling down. Everything is closing and in ruins. Everyone is inside, reduced to living, as expatriate Garth Cartwright put it in a superb essay this week, "like troglodytes" – locked-down, shut in, creatures of the dark. But a look outside the window reveals the one you can always count on to live out its life in ultimate freedom: birds.
None of the beasts of the earth and the sea have the faintest notion that the human race is dying of a plague. Birds possess a special smugness: they're above it all. Right now the simple joy and brief release of going for a walk is made a lot, lot sweeter by the sight and sound of birds. There they go, beyond our grasp, unaffected by our virus, forming large roosts at twilight, wandering the shores, setting off on fantastic migrations. You're seeing the birds of garden (sparrow, blackbird, thrush) and park (white-faced herons, spur-winged plover, magpie) and shore (stilts, red knots, the last remaining bar-tailed godwits). You're going back inside to fret, and hope for the best. They're free.
But birds don't entirely live apart from the human race. Just as birdwatchers take to the forests and shorelines to watch birds, birds keep an eye on us. They watch, they observe. Wellington poet Bill Manhire took to the Twitter machine the day after the lockdown, and asked, "Have the birds noticed?"
Well, yes, kind of. I got on the blower this week to David Lawrie, past president of the New Zealand Ornithological Society, and he said: "Reports are trickling in."
He'd observed a couple of changes in bird behaviour while out and about on his bike near his home in Pukekohoe. Just the other day he counted 50 Californian quails casually crossing the street. "Clearly," he said, "they wouldn't have done that a week ago." I really wished I'd asked him why they were crossing the road so he could retort it was to get to the other side. Just as obviously, the quails were at liberty to jaywalk due to the absence of traffic.
Birders – don't call them birdwatchers, like I did a few paragraphs earlier; it's childish, and not the correct term – establish excellent networks of communication with each other. Sightings of rare birds, population counts, and odd behaviours are shared in a variety of ways, including the Birding-NZ forum. Erik Webber expanded on David Lawrie's quail sighting when he wrote on Birding-NZ , "As an 'essential worker' I had to make a very long drive yesterday (300km). What I noticed on my trip was that many birds are behaving very differently with now almost zero traffic on the roads.
"There were very large flocks of over 100 sparrows and finches eating grass seed on the long grass verges, and groups of feral turkeys and California Quail were sunning themselves ON the edges of the roads, they barely moved as I drove past. It makes me wonder what it will be like next week!"
Or the week after that, or the week after that… Colin Miskelly, an ornithologist with Te Papa in Wellington, told me that passersby in the capital might notice seasonal bird patterns now that it's autumn. For example, big flocks of greenfinches turn up in the pohutakawas outside Te Papa for their seasonal roost, and there are also huge flocks of other birds at twilight: "Evening flocks of birds moving into the warm city away from the countryside predators."
That made him think out loud, "Deserted cities might be very attractive. It's possible that as with these reports of birds roosting on the roadside, birds could be expanding into territories they don't usually inhabit."
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The threat as evoked in that great Hitchcock movie The Birds might be coming to a roadside near you, or somewhere closer to home. Check your garden shed. Keep an eye on the trees on your property. Like the virus, birds are airborne: watch your back.
"I think there will be subtle changes," said Lawrie. "Did you see that story on the news that a herd of wild goats had come into some village in Wales? They were having a lovely time in the gardens because no one was there to chase them. So, birds might be doing something similar as people diminish." Interesting choice of word, "diminish".
Another birder added a post to the Covid-19 thread. Someone called Zarkov wrote, "Man's rule at the top of the animal kingdom is coming to an end. Birds are regaining their rightful place in the natural world."
There are nutters everywhere.
Ss well as enjoying a greater freedom to roam, though, some birds are being disadvantaged by the absence of people. The common perception of man's relationship with birds is that we're bad news. It's a fairly accurate perception. We eat them, we shoot them, we take away their habitat. But sometimes we help, not hinder; the kingfisher population in New Zealand soared in the first half of the twentieth century thanks to the sudden and widespread appearance of a perfect viewing platform for the birds to sit and look for food: telephone wires.
We provide other species with food in a more active manner. I said to Lawrie: "We bring out the dead." He said: "Well that's right." We were talking about the roadkill of possums and rabbits on the side of the road. Lawrie said, "We live on a hill looking over a valley and I've noticed that the harriers aren't flying around. I wonder if that's because there's no traffic and therefore no roadkill. An easy source of food is gone."
Mynah birds, too, are finding the supermarket of the roads are closed. Everyone has seen mynahs, usually in pairs, standing in the middle of the road with incredible belligerence even when your car is headed straight for them. At the last moment, they always disperse. They're hunters: the birds look for bugs and insects which splat against car windscreens, die, and fall onto the road. But that food source is – ooh, that word again - diminishing.
Kepper's post at Birding-NZ commented of his 300km drives, "Pairs of Mynah birds patrolling for vehicle-struck insects every 200m had almost disappeared. Instead they were to be seen in large flocks walking in the paddocks."
Scavengers of city waste might also be affected by the absence of people. That cooing pinhead, the rock pigeon, has little fear of crowds, and is commonly seen in outdoor squares and plazas on the look-out for KFC and suchlike. Everyone has thrown a hot chip at a black-backed seagull. No one does now. The birds are being deprived of the same beautiful thing that we are being denied in the lockdown: fast food.
Right now New Zealand's leading or certainly most tireless birder of migrating shorebirds, Adrian Riegen, wants to be down at the Miranda shore, or a southern shore of the Manukau harbour opposite the airport, to watch the first chapter of one of the greatest stories in all ornithology: the moment when bar-tailed godwits, fattened to twice their normal weight, take to the skies to begin the non-stop, 10,000km flight to the shores of the Yellow Sea in China, and then to Alaska or Siberia to breed.
"A bit frustrating," he said. It was a classic Kiwi understatement. The lockdown prevents him from witnessing a truly magical moment. The birds fly for seven, eight days straight, without rest; it's the world's longest journey. Still, he can console himself that about 95% of the godwit population in New Zealand has already left, and as you read this will be somewhere in the sky, beating their way towards the Arctic.
I called Riegen because I wanted to ask him whether the famous godwits were aware or totally unaware of Covid-19. Of all birds, they are the least locked-down; they pass timezones and international borders at will. He said at first, "They would be completely oblivious to this. There would be no real reason for them to know anything about this bizarre thing."
But then he said, "The only difference would be in places where there would be less disturbance." He meant there would be an absence of people in places around New Zealand where the godwits will be feeding in preparation for their epic flight.
He said, "That would help the birds to some extent when they're fueling up. There's some parts of New Zealand where they're trying to feed and fatten up but have to compete with hang-gliders, and kite surfers, and motorbikes and all that sort of thing.
"Even before the shutdown, people were keeping their distance and not going out, and it might have made a difference, like at Foxton estuary. There's a lot of human activity where the birds are but it would have been a lot less stressful this year. So from that point of view they would have benefitted."
Not absolutely oblivious, then; one species' killer virus is another's freedom to eat without fear of disturbance.
I asked him whether there was any possibility the birds could carry the virus. He said there was not. Any migratory bird that had any kind of disease would lose energy on the flight, and simply fall into the sea and drown.
He said, "Loss of habitat is a much bigger threat to the godwits than any disease. Otherwise they just go about their business. They don't know if it's Monday or Sunday. They've got their schedule, and they know what they've got to do on a daily basis. The whole year is basically all mapped out for them and they stick to their plan. They just get on with it."
I said, "There could be something we can learn from birds."
He said, "I'm sure there is. Maybe this Covid-19 thing will make us rethink the way we've been trashing the planet. Maybe we'll realise it's pretty vulnerable and that it's a good idea if we start looking after it." He paused, and then he said, "I wouldn't hold my breath though."