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.