An owl in the apple tree
Nā Keri Hulme
I have been fascinated by owls since childhood.
As someone who couldn’t see normally (I was legally blind for a long time), I loved the idea of a silent night-see-er that also knew its way round by sound… and, was silent in flying…
Owls weren’t common in North New Brighton, Christchurch, where I grew up.
It wasn’t until I came to live on the West Coast that I realised owls were – common.
“Moreporks? Yeah – everywhere.”
And they were. Locals on the Coast said “mo’poke” and nobody used the word I’d learned in Moeraki, a looong time ago.
Which was “koukou”.
Fine: different places, different spaces, in language especially.
One of the things about having indifferent sight? You generally have the compensation of very good hearing.
When I decided to live on the Coast – aside from a relatively brief misdirect to Greymouth – I went and built my home in Ōkarito. That was in 1973, and on-going.
The first thing I did – because my family are gardeners as well as makyrs and healers – was plant three trees. They were all highly symbolic in my 20s mind…
A tōtara (doing great guns, thanks!)
A bamboo (severely contained but an extremely healthy & useful plant)
And a Cox’s Orange apple tree. Simply because I love Cox’s Orange apples…
It doesn’t exactly thrive. It is the kind of apple tree my Nana would’ve called unthrifty. But – it’s there. Still.
Ōkarito is a bird place. Humans are ephemeral. Birds own.
I heard the ruru as koukou as soon as I moved here.
And I heard, rarely but wonderfully, other birds.
Once, in a year that an ornithologist mate confirmed was a major mast year, I heard a kākāpō boom.
And once, I heard a bird cry I’ve never heard before or since.
It just may have been the last whēkau on the Coast.
You see, Aotearoa used to have several owls: the whēkau (so-called laughing owl, though its call was more scream than laugh), and the ruru (given to both sexes), koukou (male only, in some areas), peho (female only, in some areas). There are rumours of a giant owl on the East Coast (North Island). And there is a bird that has throbbed in my mind ever since I read about it*, that used to thrive in the Rangitata Gorge – a miniature owl, the size of a kingfisher. Only known from the Rangitata Gorge and Waimate…
It well may have been an owlet-nightjar – now long extinct, aue aue!
My apple tree. The owl.
Owls call here all night. I enjoy their calls.
There was no hint, when I came back a month ago, that anything was wrong.
But going past the apple tree I noticed something. It didn’t make sense to my eyes.
It was feathery. It was dark.
I parted the branches.
It was a dead koukou.
Two of the talons of its left foot were driven deep into a major branch of the apple tree.
It was hanging, wings haplessly extended, upside down.
I could not, cannot understand it.
I left it there, to go to earth.
I can think of scenarios – ruru grabs for rat? Misses? Pinions self on tree branch?
There are not even feathers left.
I will remember it all my life.
O – koukou haven’t called here for a month or more –
But then, there’s been a DOC 1080 drop…
* Out In The Open by T. H. Potts