t. 92, Elisabeth Easther, Bird Words: New Zealand Writers on Birds

Bird Words: New Zealand Writers on Birds by Elisabeth Easther.
Auckland: Random House NZ Vintage NZ.
RRP: $35. Hb, 240pp.
ISBN: 9780143770312.
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell.

For sure, Bird Words is a book to get your hands on – other than that, it is hard to categorise. It isn’t just another book of Lovely Birds. It doesn’t just begin (and end) with the most readable endpapers I have ever seen. It is an impressively wide-ranging collection of New Zealand writing, authors and styles and topics.

Editor Elisabeth Easther has looked to historical accounts, scientific papers, poems new and old, novel extracts, prose pieces, from people born in 1861, in 2004, and anywhere in between. Languages are English and te Reo. The extracts cover all the bases: humour, serious, ridiculous, reverent; the ‘Contributors’ section gives more than enough detail to go to the full source. The illustrations are black-and-white reproductions of Lily Daff’s watercolours, commissioned by Forest & Bird between 1927 and 1931. There are extinct birds and living ones, but no snob hierarchy about who is/isn’t included: introduced species (like all immigrants) have the same rights as the locals.

The endpapers are something entirely different: they are presented as an ordinary book-design feature. Close up, they are an impressive list of birdy collective nouns, a poem in their own right. Readers who worry about such things may look long and hard for dictionary sources – are we seeing an authenticity of avians? a disruption of kea? a piss-take of passerines? You tell me.

A few samples of the contents, pretty much at random:

Richard Holdaway’s account of the extinct Haast’s eagle, deduced from a fossil record begun in 1871 and continuing through the Honeycomb Hill discoveries of the 1980s. This article was originally published in NZ Geographic (1989).

Fiona Farrell (2007) and Herbert Guthrie-Smith (1921) on the part played by acclimatisation societies. Guthrie-Smith tells the story of the sparrow’s introduction and dispersion throughout the North Island. Farrell gives us an immigrant wife, going up-country for the first time with a cage of nightingales on her lap and crates and crates of live ferrets stacked in the wagon behind: Pinky sits in her cage, her belly rippling already with the next litter. She sniffs and presses her lithe and perfect body against the netting of her cage, eager for release. Not long now. (p 51) … but when autumn comes, the nightingales fly south.

  1. Allhusen (1904) in raptures over shooting kūkupa (kererū): three pages on the manly and godlike aspects of the sport fleshed out by one full page of detail on the succulent “beauty which surpasses man’s power of portrayal … they are unsurpassed as table-birds” (p 75).

Janet Charman’s “Tiritiri Matangi” – a long poem about a study group trip, ending:

in the early evening sun

we lie in wait for the boat

and when it sails

two of us

on the rear deck

but not me

see penguins

a zip

in the moment’s silken skin

that’s everything  (p 170).

David Hill documents synchronicity between literary criticism and birds, particularly the thrush, in “Giving the Bird” – a heartfelt recognition that T.S. Eliot, Robert Browning, and David Hill (severally or together) don’t know zip about Turdidae, scourge of the garden.

The extract from Hal Smith’s 1988 book on endangered birds is the story of Don Merton’s long drawn-out, eventually successful, romance with Old Blue, a lady who came perilously close to being the last of the black robins, not just on Little Mangere but anywhere.

Another selection is from the first ever guide to New Zealand birds, written in 1925 by Pérrine Moncrieff. Her introduction ends with a sentiment now familiar to us all but unexpected nearly a century ago:

These birds are among New Zealand’s greatest assets. In her galleries and museums she cannot attempt to rival the wonderful art treasures to be found at the Louvre in Paris or the British Museum in London, but she can attract visitors from all parts of the world to see her incomparable birds.  (p 89).

And more and more: Denis Glover sees penguins as well as magpies. Brian Gill knows a barn owl that fell from the sky. Meg Campbell is protective of her bonking budgies. Malcolm Ross finds both kiwi and kakapo affectionate and gives instructions for grilling weka. Matt Vance meets an albatross as they are both en route to the Ross Sea. This is a dipping-in book more than a read-straight-through book, and anywhere you dip is well worth it.

Hone Tuwhare’s “Bird of Prayer” echoes both the themes of this collection and is good to end with (quoted in full):

On the skyline

a hawk

languidly typing

a hunting poem

with its wings.  (p 77).


Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015. Field Notes, a satiric miscellany, was published by Submarine Books Mākaro Press in 2017.