Elusive birds beautifully depicted, Pat Quinn

Moa: The Story of a Fabulous Bird
PhilipTemple and Chris Gaskin,
Hodder & Stoughton, $11.95

Old Blue: The Rarest Bird in the World
Mary Taylor,
Ashton Scholastic, $19.95

The South Island ‘sightings’ of the elusive moa provide a timely context for the publication of this revised softcover edition of Moa: The Story of a Fabulous Bird. The updated facts are enhanced by the text layout, similar to the other popular title from the same authors, The Story of the Kakapo.

Chris Gaskin’s beautiful illustrations complement Philip Temple’s delightful narrative of the life – and death – of Pouakai, a fictional male moa. The pictures provide impressive documentation of the moa environment. The rocks and plants, the moa community itself, reptiles, and a multitude of New Zealand birds are finely represented.

At the close of the story, these illustrations are numbered and reproduced in outline. The accompanying notes describe the factual basis for the storyline and pictures. They provide an excellent information resource on the archaeological evidence, the environment and the life-cycle of the ancient moa.

It is from these facts and hypotheses that Philip Temple has constructed Pouakai’s remarkable and very readable story. There’s early parental rejection, natural disasters and enemies, adolescent angst, solo fatherhood, arthritic old age, a sad and boggy death and a glimpse of things to come. Unfortunately for the moa, what eventually came was people. After reading this book, I’m hoping that the South Island sightings were real.

The human species is implicated again in Old Blue by Mary Taylor. However, in this true story, Don Merton, his New Zealand wildlife team and one incredibly co-operative bird go some way towards redressing the balance.

For hundreds of years, the Chatham Islands Black Robin, distinctive from other robins as a ‘soft, sooty black, with black beaks, black feet and sparkling black eyes’, lived in safety on the lonely islands. Then people arrived, and with them came carnivorous animals, particularly cats and rats. As forest gave way to farmland, and the bird population diminished, the black robins fled. By 1970, trapped in a dying forest on Little Mangere Island, there were ‘in all the world … only twenty black robins left to sing’. A few years later, the number had dropped to seven.

Taylor’s story centres around one of those seven, a female chick that Don Merton named Old Blue. Her moving account of the rescue of the robins and the tender relationship that builds between bird and man is told in simple, powerful text surrounded by bold, dark illustrations.

The soft-feathered robins, the helpful warblers and tomtits, the flowers, nests, entwining leaves, and the watchful face of Don Merton are strongly portrayed. The reference panel on the last page, naming Chatham Island birds depicted in the illustrations, is an added bonus.

The notes on the author mention that Mary Taylor is ‘one who cares passionately about the conservation of the natural world’. In this story, beautifully told and illustrated, the passion is evident.


Pat Quinn is a Wellington writer.


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Posted in Children, Natural History, Review
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