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[Sparrows] In which attempts to eat Shane are made

November 26, 2012

[This is the ninth in a series of posts on sparrow nest-monitoring over the 2012-2013 Austral spring and summer.]

Sparrow-hunting is progressing well: I have now spent four successive days at Miranda, and am monitoring six nests. The general structure of the survey is to check all visible nests for nesting activity each morning, including the nests I know to be active, wait around for the middle of the day, and then re-check the active nests in the afternoon. There are about forty nests visible, and about eight of them have either eggs or chick in them at present.

Today, the first of my experimental nests hatched chicks – I reached in gently expecting to pull out eggs, and instead was gently bitten by a hatchling operating on the utterly misguided assumption that my fingers were a source of sustenance. Hurrah! I am capable of monitoring a nest through to hatching, and get useful data from it! Now I just have to repeat the task until I have a formidable pile of data!

The Miranda Naturalists’ Trust has quite an extensive natural history library. Rather unsurprisingly, there is a focus on birds in its collection. I have started reading ‘Bird Islands of New Zealand’, by Major Robert Wilson – another naturalist a la Buller or Reischek, but active in the 1890s – 1950s rather than the late 1870s – 1880s. His style is different to Reischek’s: there is less of a focus on shooting things, and the travels are notably more tame. Because he came later, the questions he answers are more refined: Reischek wanted to collect a specimen Saddleback (read: shoot one) to dispel rumours it was another hoax species, like the duck-billed platypus, that we Antipodeans had made up. Wilson, by contrast, looked for Saddleback nests to confirm that the uniformly-brown bird known as a ‘jackbird’ was actually a juvenile South Island saddleback, not some other species. The natural history of the place is palpably more of a known quantity.

The other book that has caught my eye is the (1st edition) Complete Work of JG Keulemans, on sale in their shop. Sadly, it is one of those gorgeous books that costs $130, rather than one of those gorgeous books that retails for an affordable number of dollars. Keulemans produced a series of illustrations of the wildlife of New Zealand, mainly from museum skins collected by Buller and sent to Europe – the work is a combination of gorgeous, historic, and at times frustratingly wrong: the Pied Shag is pictured with a patch of red flesh in front of each eye, for instance (where in reality the patch is yellow). My book fetish is getting to me.

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