Friday, August 31, 2012

Glory Be!

Another Event in Natural History, or, Reflections on a Pied Beauty 

Is this, pictured, what it appears to be? In the first photo, it’s hard to see the bird against the backdrop of bark chips. It might be what naturalists call “cryptic coloration”: patterning or colouring that makes a creature difficult to distinguish from its surroundings. But in the second photo the unusual markings are more clearly visible, and on the lush green grass nearby, he’d really stand out.

As blackbirds go, this one’s far from common. He doesn’t have a splash of the whitewash; nor has a magpie been meddling, putting his pecker where he shouldn’t. The bird shown here is All Blackbird, if not All Black.

I wish I could say I’d spotted him in my backyard but his actual dwelling place probably suits him better: he inhabits the expansive Auckland Botanic Gardens, where he can surprise and delight a wider public. A garden guide with the apt surname of Peck tells me that although blackbirds with white plumage are unusual, “we have been seeing more of them here in the last year or two”.

Oxford’s New Encyclopedia of Birds says that in the thrush family “Several species, especially the blackbird, produce aberrant leucistic (showing pigment loss) or entirely albinistic individuals.” Thus pied members of Turdus merula, the blackbird species, are documented sporadically in England and other countries where blackbirds are at home. The most detailed information I found was five sentences in a Mid-Devon Natural History Society newsletter (winter 2009), whose editor had observed the phenomenon in his own garden over a period.

Closer to home, Gordon Ell’s Common and Garden Birds of New Zealand (1990) also notes that “Sometimes blackbirds have a few white feathers and there are even records of white, or completely albino, birds”
. Auckland Museum land vertebrates curator Brian Gill describes the bird I photographed as a partial albino. They usually present as having a scattering of white feathers in among the normal plumage and the pattern is usually asymmetrical. 

We have a large number of them in the museum reference collection”, he adds, because people are more likely to bring in a dead blackbird with odd plumage than a normal one. Albinos, or partial albinos, of any species of bird turn up occasionally, but partial albinos are a little more frequent than usual in blackbirds. Partial albinos seem to survive in the wild quite well, and probably much longer than pure white albinos.

Blackbirds came to New Zealand from the 1860s to the 1870s, introduced for what my field guide to birds describes as sentimental reasons”. In 1891, prominent Otago citizen Vincent Pyke reported in a letter to the Otago Daily Times “another event in natural history... the return of a beautifully pied blackbird, which has been a constant and welcome visitor and guest in my garden for some years.”

I’m far from alone in expressing gratitude for pied beauty. The poem of that name, written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877, may be one of the most frequently quoted in the English-speaking world. (Another Beauty, of a more sombre hue, made its first appearance that year. But as Hopkins was then studying theology in rural North Wales, it seems unlikely he would have heard of Black Beauty ...the Autobiography of a Horse, written by the Quaker animal activist Anna Sewell.)

Hopkins, a Jesuit, attempted asceticism. Poetry, though, was irrepressible, and it shows how he relished natural life:

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;

For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;

Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings ...

Without the heavy tread of a supposedly modern concept, “celebrating diversity”, that is exactly what he did — in words that shimmer, float and take flight, like the creations he wrote about:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;

He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.


If the list seems long for this short piece, so be it. In addition to those I have linked to or quoted above, thanks to — the Botanic Gardens pied blackbird for his vital (though non-speaking) part; Auckland Libraries for access to Columbia Granger’s World of Poetry (“Pied Beauty”) and Oxford Reference Online (eg A Dictionary of Zoology, The Oxford Companion to English Literature); History of St Buenos; The Natural History Information Centre, Auckland Museum.

No comments:

Post a Comment