Thursday, July 2, 2009

Once Were Pukekos

Photo: Gareth Rapley

Pukekos are alternately a source of irritation and great entertainment.

They are rarely popular when they screech outside our bedroom window at 3am and unwanted incursions onto our deck are also frowned upon, as the video in this section shows (note for the SPCA: no birds were harmed in the filming process. Except by each other.)

We have two pukeko families in and around the hostel and in a strange sort of way they mirror the cut of modern day NZ society. First we have Lone Wolf and his consort Boy George, who control the garden immediately outside the kitchen and the front verandah area. These are two lucrative food sources, but they are difficult to defend as they are on opposite sides of the building. We refer to these two birds as our civil union pukekos – they are sleek, well fed, aggressive and upwardly mobile but singularly unsuccessful at producing offspring (Wellingtonians, perhaps?) Alas, physiology is against them.

This means that ultimately they can only lose in a showdown against the more fecund East Side Crew. There are seven of these birds and they have a very stroppy dad, who rushes in to defend his rather thick offspring when BG or LW attack them for trespassing. One of these youngsters is so dumb it inadvertently tried to beg food off Boy George in his own territory. The interaction ended very badly for him.

Attacks usually happen when boundaries are crossed. As with the continent of Africa when it was carved up by the 19C European powers, these boundaries bear no relation to logical demarcation lines and seem to become fuzzy when one of our two blokes is having an off-day or is preoccupied with another hapless attempt to procreate. Basically, Boy George will defend up to the water tray, he will look after the grapefruit tree if he feels like it but the eastsiders venture into the front deck area at their own peril.

Our entertainment is derived from the fact that they do just that with monotonous regularity.

A face-off is signalled by a warning shriek. This is followed by major posturing as the two male combatants stare each other down and try to look as tall and imposing as possible. It is essential at this stage that a bird does not turn its back as this action will precipitate an attack, which takes place when one bird is able to get the jump on the other – literally. They use their powerful clawed feet to rake and slash at each other from a height, and will kill without compunction if the opportunity arises.
Pukeko picking over the carcass of a bird that crossed the line
However, they will also retreat swiftly if it looks as though ‘collateral damage’ is possible, so most fights are just hot air and noise.

Retreats usually involve a show of studied indifference, but from an imagined position of strength. Typically a pukeko will show its rear end to an opponent while pretending to look at the ground for food, but its wing feathers will be fluffed up and tucked back in order to make the bird look as intimidating as it can manage. Size is everything in this game.

Clan loyalties are strong and any altercation will bring the cuzzies rushing over to see if they can get a shot in at a turned enemy back. This is why I think the civil union birds are bound to fail – it is only a matter of time until the eastsiders grow sufficiently to outnumber them.

I watched an unfortunate Grey Heron land close to the boundary of the Workshop Pukekos and almost immediately he was attacked by one of their larger males. Normally this would mean a hasty retreat, but for some reason the heron did not move fast enough and within seconds he was encircled by pukekos, all squawking and looking for an easy hit.

Substitute a few Year 10s for these belligerent birds and it could all have taken place in any school ground in the country.

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