For 82 million years, since New Zealand floated off the edge of Gondwanaland, its parrots have evolved in directions far removed from their more vibrant and psychedelic Australian cousins. The prime native New Zealand parrots, kea, kākā and kakapo (and varieties), are positively funereal compared to, say, a crimson rosella or a king parrot. Yet ask a kaka to sing, and, while not quite either Kiri Te Kanawa or even Joan Sutherland, neither is its hymn the Mephistophelian snarl of a sulphur crested or red tailed black cockatoo or a galah. To be honest, given its skills at mimicry, a kākā would soon out-Kiri Kiri.
Birders speak of “LBJs”, little brown jobs. The pardalote is a classic, though not particularly drab: it skitters through bushland leaving a trail of scattered song, tantalising the eye but rewarding the ear. To be fair Australia has an enormous range of birds, and many are exquisite songsters (the most beautiful, ironically, is perhaps the butcher bird). Aotearoa has a comparatively limited range of natives, but few fail to thrill the ear. Arguably the most mellifluous of all is, in fact an import, the song thrush, but let’s not let reality get in the way of a good story.
For there is a parable here. The beautiful trillings of an otherwise drab LBJ stir the heart, and, if the heart is godwardly attuned it may be stirred to join the bird, singing in praise of the Creator. The psychedelic flash of a flock of rainbow bee-eaters also stirs the soul, but, while its song is not that of a galah, it’s more Barry Manilow than Andrea Boccelli, and it is the colour, not the song, that moves us.
For me, more than any, it is a tiny New Zealand native called a riroriro that provokes the heart to praise. Only about 10 cms long, this tiny drab bird sings the descant of the forest, and its piping ventriloqual voice can float through a valley like the song of an angel. Perhaps I should stop any trans-Tasman rivalry, for there is an Australian warbler with a very similar song that is a relative of the riro riro, but, while not rare, it is far less ubiquitous and its song is less iconic in Australian culture.
This riro riro, then, is my (flawed) parable. Small, drab, all but invisible, its song rises to the heavens. Surely for those of us who will never paint the forests bright with the psychedelic colours of our being there is a message here: sing the song God gave us and we too can raise the spirits of a frost-encrusted valley. Frost, of course, is not exactly a problem in Darwin, but perhaps we can relate from experience somewhere sometime to the oppression of mist and frozen toes? You and I have a song to sing, the notes of life that God has given us. We may not, will not live in neon splendour, but in our small songs we may somewhere, somehow thrill the soul of those who pass us by.