Auckland International Airport must be one of the only places in the world where you get some romance thrown in with your red-eye. Standing in the arrivals hall after a long trip from Los Angeles, and before that, London, I was arrested by an unmistakable song: glassy clear, it fell into the air like liquid silver, earthy and ancient and haunting enough to bring tears to my sleep-deprived eyes. It had all the poignancy of a karanga, and despite the unromantic environment of arrival forms and Customs checks, I remember wanting to kneel and kiss the airport’s serviceable carpet in gratitude, and minutes later, to kiss the Samoan luggage-scan operator for giving me the kind of friendly hello that just doesn’t exist north of the equator.
The impact of the airport’s recorded dawn chorus was a reminder of the power of our favourite bird: possessed of an achingly beautiful song, exquisitely garbed, lovably rambunctious and gracious enough to live on many a Kiwi doorstep, the tui, like the stately pohutukawa, is a deeply treasured icon.
For many of us, tui song is embedded in our psyche, functioning as a sort of aural anchor to home and tugging at our sense of what is peaceful and good. Somehow, the song is like a sonic portrait of Aotearoa, capturing something of the shattering clarity of light, of the wetness and cyclic mutterings of the New Zealand bush, a forest of bounty and grandeur before humans came to dominate.
The sale of cards from New Zealand company Wild-Card Bird Cards testifies to this. Its singing tui card is the front-running product, outselling the little spotted kiwi, bellbird, saddleback and kokako by two to one. I once bought one for a friend who was stubbornly determined to continue living overseas, knowing that if it wouldn’t lure her home, it would at least transport her here momentarily.
Although we see them less than we hear them, tui also tend to catch us by surprise with sudden appearances; whizzing past, one after another.
Jets of blue glory across ordinary moments, they add an unexpected connection with nature to mundane tasks such as taking out the compost.
These glimpses of midnight blue, sometimes emerald, occasionally olive-gold feathers and those frivolous neck tufts further our feelings of intrigue towards them. Lending comic value to an otherwise dignified bird, the mutton-chop filaments that curve around the sides and back of the neck give tui a slightly harried look close up, to counter the impression of impeccable smoothness they have from a greater distance. Usually hidden singers, the moments when we see a tui in its gloss and paua iridescence are special enough to make us stop and stand still, conscious that we are witnesses to a kind of natural grace, undeserved and uncontrollable.
Although other birds voice a similarly wild New Zealand earthiness (particularly the tui’s fellow honeyeater the bellbird) and are arguably equal in beauty, it is the tui we have emblemised as herald and friend. Perhaps this is because, in contrast to many native birds which have retreated from our ecologically fragmented and predator-ridden urban environments, tui seem to have sized us up and given us the okay—or decided to make the best of things, at any rate. In much of the country tui are common enough to be a familiar sight, and even for town dwellers, tui song is a delightful normality, layered with the everyday sounds of lawnmowers and slamming doors. Although we often do no more than plant abutilon or kowhai to provide for them, and less than we should in this era of pebble gardens, we value the presence of tui.
We even become mildly proprietary about individual birds, perhaps noticing one that frequents a particular tree in the garden, belting out a tune with enough consistency that we start to recognise the nuances of its compositions. Real estate agents frequently allude to resident tui as a selling point of houses, aware that tui around a property promise buyers privacy, peace, the luxury of a leafy view. The owners of Stafford Villa, a boutique hotel on Auckland’s North Shore, use the prolific birdlife, and in particular a “scraggy old tui that sings for a mate year after year” in their Victorian garden, as a draw-card for patrons. Owner Christina Windram describes guests as being “absolutely amazed when they look out of the conservatory window at breakfast and see such a distinctive bird perched on the old avocado tree outside. They can’t believe that a bird like this is so easily available, so close to the city.”
Tui are distributed throughout the North and South Islands and thrive as far south as the Auckland Islands. Chatham Island is home to a larger sub-species of tui. They were once also populous in Hamilton but have only just returned after decades of rejuvenation programmes that have restored greenbelts around the city limits. A female tui, Casper, made headlines in 2008 when she successfully fledged a chick in Hamilton Gardens—her offspring was the first tui born in the city in a century. Casper recently died of unknown causes, but her pioneering effort has signalled what environmentalists hope is a turning point.
Dr Corinne Watts of Landcare Research’s Hamilton office followed Casper particularly closely. She says that, anecdotally, this year has seen higher numbers of tui in the city limits than ever before and they have arrived for winter feeding earlier in the season than usual. She praises Project Halo, an organisation devoted to the control of possums and rats at Waikato tui-breeding sites as well as encouraging native planting in the city and monitoring tui sightings. Hamilton residents are persuaded to plant tui-food-producing plants, particularly natives, as exotic species tend to flower only in winter and are believed to be a secondary choice. Local garden centres have teamed up to stock locally sourced plants such as Phormium tenax or harakeke, kahikatea and cabbage tree. Project Halo’s work is no doubt benefiting other species too—an unbanded bellbird was recently spotted in the suburb of Fitzroy.
Rejuvenation projects have also supported tui elsewhere in New Zealand. The Makara Peak Mountainbike Park in Karori feeds tui and supports their breeding in wider Wellington, a region which is enviably awash with tui. Summer visitors to the Beehive or Lambton Quay are likely to be treated to the richly iconic sight of tui enjoying pohutukawa flowers.
Which all goes to show just how far we’ve come.
Early European settlers preferred to eat them, in pies, and sometimes used the skins for decoration on ladies’ hats.
Maori ate tui potted in calabashes as a feast food, and a myth about Mautoka-rau-tawhiri tells of how she had cravings for potted tui while pregnant with her son Rata. Her husband obligingly takes his slave to the bush in search of tui, much like today’s stereotype of husband sent to supermarket at midnight to buy ice-cream and pickles for an implacable pregnant wife.
Our love affair with tui extends to popular culture, and as an emblem of kiwiness, they have proved to be very contemporary. They show up emblazoned on Tui Balms and Waxes, Tui Garden Products, Tui Campervans and, of course, the billboard-cum-social commentary series that showcases blokey New Zealand culture for Tui Brewery. Even the kiwi, officially our national bird, fails to capture as much airtime.
Coincidentally, tui also represent our national psyche on an aesthetic level. In a nation of darkly edgy creatives, where quirky is cool and brash is better left to the Aussies, the subtle iridescence, mystery, dash and cheekiness of tui works for us. As complex and sleek as a Karen Walker design, with just the right ironic touch of frou frou and a nod to Maori culture in the perfectly placed, pert poi-like wattle, the tui’s got it just about right.
Even though we see tui all year round, they are more noticeable at certain times, functioning as seasonal heralds and reminding us of the year turning on its axis. Tui song brings a poignant companionship to clear autumn days, providing a mellow soundtrack to these quieter months.
In the fickle equinoctial weather of spring, the riotous song echoes our own need to shake off winter’s layers. Tui cavort, reckless with nectar and busy with the noisy establishment of partnerships and breeding territories. They combine loud song with frequent, wing-whirring chases to mark out who’s with who and who’s allowed where. Navigating the bush canopy with the precision of dog-fighting fighter pilots, they are even capable of singing mid-chase in an impressive synchronicity of the aggressive techniques that make them a dominant species. Tui will even chase the weightier but gentle kereru, and have been known to attack hawks and magpies—although tui have also been recorded as being victimised by mobs of mynas and starlings.
Older, dominant male tui have notched wing-tips which allow them to beat the air heavily, announcing themselves as heavyweights and thereby achieving command of food sour
ces, nesting areas or singing posts; you might have noticed a tui fly into a tree and dislodge several other incumbent birds. Spring also sees tui take part in one of the felicitous exchanges of the natural world. As they dip curved beaks into similarly curved flower hoods and curl their brush-tipped tongues into the nectar of mahoe, rewarewa and other flowering natives, the bird’s forehead is smudged with pollen. The pollen is transferred to another plant when the tui moves on to take its next drink. Though inadvertently helping plants survive, the task is no more than a pub-crawl for a sugar-hungry tui.
Almost like barometers of our own moods, tui seem to be most loquacious on the golden days of spring, pouring forth chortles and chucks and waterfalls of major-minor tones. Yet on cold grey days, in keeping with our own more tempered tone, they are restrained and even gently plaintive.
Farmer and ornithologist Herbert Guthrie-Smith, writing in the early 20th century, observed of a female tui singing on the nest (tui are the only bird in the world to sing on the nest): “We were close to her, yet she sang as if her song could have no ending, as if the world was too full of the ecstasy of life for wrong and rapine to exist. The sun was shining above the flowing river, the leaves green, of every shape and shade, her great love had cast out fear.”
Overtures like this do not seem out of place when ascribed to the tui. Once named the parson bird, it easily matches our notions of overflowing joy. If you have been within range of a singing tui, you might have noticed that the clean white neck clusters shake like feather-light bells as the bird tilts its head back and throws its shoulders energetically into its song, casting an open-beaked silhouette against the sky. It seems to huff and hunch in silence between chord progressions, as if extracting new notes from deep within itself before breaking back into song. This is when the tui reaches ultra-sonic notes and, for those seconds, sings a melody that humans are unable to hear.
The product of a dual voicebox, tui song has correspondingly dual qualities; a tui can sound guttural one moment and saintly the next—see box. Soulful, then chatty, even momentarily crass. Thought to have hundreds of sounds at its disposal, a tui draws upon powers of mimicry and a range of earthly and unearthly coughs, wheezes and splutters, in addition to its mastery of siren-like song. Tui can exactly re-create sounds—as specific as glass shattering—and they frequently pick up on more everyday sounds such as car alarms, beeps and whistles.
Last year, an Inglewood family made the television news when a tui in their backyard learnt to whistle the 0800 tune from the start of the Pizza Hut jingle. Try singing it out loud—the notes of “0800” are also the climactic hallelujah from Handel’s Messiah. At once magnificent and laddish in demeanour, your average tui is both classy and cheeky enough to be chortling either tune.
Akin to the copy-cat capabilities of parrots, the tui’s capacity for mimicry has been known for centuries. Early European settlers kept pet tui, as did Maori, and there are several accounts of tui that had been taught to talk and sing. These highly prized birds aroused envy—a legend from the Wairoa region tells about Tane Miti Rangi, a tame tui that caused an inter-tribal war when he was stolen by a neighbouring hapu.
But until recently, these stories of tame and talking tui remained obscured by the gloom of history. A bird at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Centre has changed all that. Woof Woof was brought into the bird hospital 13 years ago as a five-day-old chick that had fallen from the nest and become wedged into the crook of a tree. Lovingly nursed to health by the centre’s founders, Robert and Robyn Webb, the fledgling Woof Woof was given a permanent aviary at the centre rather than being released back into the wild—one wing had never fully healed, and as a disabled tui he would certainly have been killed by a cat or a hawk, if not other tui.
Two years later, Robert, an affable, open-faced fellow with the gentle pragmatism of a true animal lover, was cleaning the aviaries when a gruff voice said, “Hello Woof Woof.” Robert says he looked around in confusion, seeing no one and thinking, “What the hell?”, before going inside to make himself a cup of tea and ponder his new status as “a raving bloody lunatic”. Eventually, of course, he twigged; this was no ordinary bird.
Robert still has no idea where the name “Woof Woof” came from, but it stuck, as have several other random phrases: “Come up here quick”, “Where’ve you been”, “How’s your cold” and “Merry Christmas” among them. Somehow, Robert reports, the bird knows when Christmas is on the horizon and brings “Merry Christmas” back into his repertoire a week or two before the festive season. In any five-minute period, Woof Woof might rattle out a mixture of sentences, a laconically whistled “Pop Goes the Weasel” and a disconcertingly accurate imitation of Robert’s quizzical “Eh?” among the chucks and songs of a wild tui.
Woof Woof strings ideas together and understands the give and take of a human conversation. Responding to Robert’s questions and comments, he makes a startling amount of sense. Robert tells us about a time when Woof Woof struck up conversation with a visitor, starting out with, “Hello Woof Woof. Where’ve you been? Merry Christmas.” The visitor, unfazed, told him where he’d been; Waitangi, the Hole in the Rock… “Have you been to those places, Woof Woof?” he finished up. Without skipping a beat, Woof said, “Yip. Yip…”
Robert admits that he’s thought about teaching Woof to say, “I prefer Speight’s…Yeah Right”, and seeing if a certain brewery is interested in the video rights. But, nobly for a man who works until 10 or 11 at night without monetary reward and has “no time for his own house”, he has decided not to risk exploiting his friend. He does hope that by seeing Woof Woof, people will gain an understanding of what injured birds suffer and support the wellbeing of native birds however they can. Robert is quick to emphasise that he is not a scientist, but it’s clear that his empathy for birds has led him to a deep understanding of just how intelligent they may be.
Tui, it seems, could be one of the most intelligent and socially literate birds on Earth.
They have certainly used their intelligence to adapt and thrive with admirable fortitude, forbearing the triple blight of deforestation, colonisation and predator invasion better than any other endemic bird. Although our record of caring for them is far from perfect, they have already forgiven us much, and signals are that tui will thrive whenever we encourage them.
One of the first ladies of New Zealand poetry, Eileen Duggan, eulogised the tui with typical eloquence; writing as if to a traveller who might be persuaded that some foreign bird was its equal, she bid him to remember the tui’s unparalleled beauty. The mechanics of a nectar-supping bird’s dependence on its tongue for survival assures us that Duggan was mistaken about the grisly tongue-slitting, but she catches our sense of rapture, our desire to care for and personally witness the unique bird that means so much to us:
Would you, remembering, tell them of the Tui?
Wild, wild and blinding in its wildest note.
They—they never heard him, swinging on a flax–flower,
Mad with the honey and the noon in his throat.
They say that in the old days stately rangatiras
Slit his tongue, and made him speak instead of sing;
We would rather see him shining and gold–dusted,
From a morning kowhai flinging wide the spring.