Saturday 21 November 2020

The Mutton-Bird Mercy Dash

There was a time when I did not think so cooly* about the dramas in the lives of our avian visitors to these shores, if, Dear Reader, you think our foray into the Furneaux Islands yesterday seemed all about the numbers. It was but a single mutton-bird that fell from the sky into the laps of the Pipistrellos as they were gardening in their home by the sea around this time of year many moons ago that was once cause for much hand-wringing consternation. One minute the path was empty, the next there was an unfamiliar bird sitting looking at us. It was obvious something was wrong.

What to do?? A vet must be called! Do we even know where to find one? It was a hot Saturday afternoon. A frenzied flicking through the phone book led to a breathless appointment before the vet shut up for the weekend and then a 30-minute car dash to an unknown destination in our filthy gardening clothes with an ailing bird wrapped in a beach towel in a cardboard box. In the way of such mad-cap adventures, a mercy dash, really, what can go wrong, will go wrong. With moments to spare before closing time, we find the clinic, accompanied by a last-minute screeching of brakes and a whirling u-turn, as a back tyre explodes against the gutter and I dash inside clutching the box with nary a glance over my shoulder, leaving an aghast Mr. P to deal with the Manly Business.

There was no mocking from the very patient Veterinarian as I described, anguish written on my face, how the alert but flailing bird just appeared out of nowhere and needed help to save it! He very kindly described how it was merely a mutton-bird, it was essentially flown-out, off-course to its breeding ground and while it may be able to be revived, it would probably expire. Try coaxing it to drink some water, see if it might take some pilchards as food, and hope for the best, he said, and didn't charge me for the consultation.

A little abashed, I apologised for being so dramatic, but he reassured me that I won't be the first to walk through his door clutching a box bearing a seabird this season; every year Visitors from the City come on similar Missions, and, once, a chap had nearly fifty with him that he'd scooped up from the beach, in the vain hope he was rescuing them. And as I intended was still going to happen to our exhausted bird. Time was now of the essence!

Leaving the boxed bird with a hot and bothered Mr. P at the car, now with only 3 tyres and up on a jack, I ran to a nearby supermarket for a tin of pilchards (cat food) and some bottled water, and then, sitting in the gutter, attempted to nurse the poor bird in the blazing sun while Mr. P continued to wrestle with the cuckoo of an ill-fitting tyre he had discovered lurking in the boot (where last he had looked was nesting the Correct replacement, when the car in question had been lent to, ahem, a junior member of the colony).

We eventually limped home, the journey slowed by the car listing, all the while the bird remaining unresponsive to my ministrations. And after some more helpless tending in the shade of the verandah, the bird eventually died in its bed. Of course, there were tears as there's nothing more wearying than a futile mercy dash, and with due ceremony the bird was buried in the garden.

R.I.P. Mutton-Bird

It was a recent post by Sarah over at A Wine Dark Sea that had me thinking about Mutton-birds. She's a writer in Western Australia and the birds had an airing in one of her tales and, thinking they were only an Eastern visitor, of course I had to check on their whys and wherefores. Lucky you!  

Image credit: via Google


  1. Oh Pip, this takes me back to my childhood,when either my sister or I used to find baby birds that had fallen out of the nest. We would bring them inside then our Mum would find an old shoe box, line it with newspaper and we would try and administer milk to the poor thing. More often than not, the baby bird would die but, we had tried ! The same scenario was played out with our children ..... at least we have all tried to prolong their lives. XXXX

  2. Jackie: Oh, how sweet! I imagine there'd be plenty of weeping to be had over those unloveable-looking fledglings. Growing up with a no-nonsense mother meant the soft-hearted rescue missions had to wait until adulthood, for me! xx

  3. We are often quite anguished by birds flying into our windows. The most recent was a beautiful Woodpecker. Generally we either find them dead, or if they're just stunned they revive after a short while. Either way it's very sad.

  4. Cro: Yes, sad and seemingly avoidable. I often wonder if they've seen their reflection and keep going, thinking they're just on the tail of a friend. Lorikeets would be the likeliest for us to hit a window, and they would invariably be on a high speed chase with one another, barely more than a couple of metres off the ground, screeching all the while. Delinquent birds, these ones. We were particularly affected by the mutton-bird, realising it had flown around 10,000kms and just a bit of misadventure at the end saw it miss its island destination. So near and yet so far.

  5. I had to look up 'Mutton' birds on google to learn more about them and their lives. I am so sorry that your frantic car dash and tender loving care to safe the poor bird finally ended with its death.
    Thank goodness you were not charged by the Vet, well known of course, for handing over substantial bills, and that the burst tyre saga concluded peaceful.

  6. Now that the coffee shops have reopened outside, I always save some bread to break into small bits and throw to the birds. They must have starved for all those months we humans were in lock down :(

    Anyhow today some people yelled at me for encouraging birds to mooch around a suburban coffee shop, waiting for crumbs. I told them to have a little sensitivity towards starving creatures, or sod off.

  7. Rosemary: Such unprepossessing looking birds, too, for their marvellous numbers and marathon excursions. You may have read, too, they don't actually taste like mutton, but are named for their mutton-like fat. The Vet was a dear, I was lucky. He could have made a nice supplement to his income by fleecing all the gormless city hand-wringers!

    Hels: Ah, you're a softie with a sting in your tail!

  8. I was transfixed by yesterday's tale and delighted with the follow-up. That Hitchcock still gave me a good laugh.
    Some years ago, we had a pergola built. It had stone walls about a meter high, and a local ironworker made a frame for a bamboo shade. Well, the walls went up first, with holes left to insert the metal frame. The frame arrived and we discovered a nest in one of the holes, with many tiny birds. We took them out and put them into a box, which we moved high in a tree, in hopes of evading the neighbor's cats. All seemed well. Dining nightly in the new pergola, we watched with our kid as the mother bird flew to the babies in the box. But one day there was a huge storm, and the box was not as permeable as a nest and baby birds can't swim. When our kid asked about the birds, we lied and said they had grown up and flown away.

  9. THE DAY YOU PUBLISHED THIS WE LOST RUBY OUR RED HEN................I BURST into TEARS when THE ITALIAN came up from the GARDEN to give me THE NEWS!Ruby had arrived in our DRIVEWAY ONE FINE DAY almost three years ago NOW!SHE WAS TAME AND ALERT and learned her NAME IMMEDIATELY!She was always the FIRST to arrive for CRACKED CORN at the DOOR to the HEN HOUSE!For months I was talking about bringing her up to THE CASA to become a REAL HOUSE PET!

  10. Ahhh... for the love of birds... what is not to love and admire and be awed by? Their migrations alone are utterly incomprehensible. The tiniest of all is one of the mightiest fliers... the hummingbird. The most intelligent, the raven (I am biased). The most beautiful songbird would be fiercely competitive if it were a contest(and pity the poor judge). But I think most of all, it is their ability to fly that sets them apart. What human does not dream or think about this. Loved this sweet story, and of course wish it could have been a happy ending, but I believe somehow your heroic life saving attempt was known.

    And so terribly sad about the Contessa's loss... a heartbreak...

  11. ToF: Our good intentions often have a way of being outwitted by Mother Nature. There's more to a nest than meets the eye, evidently, and masterful little civil engineers seem also to be on their rather full CV's. That the birds had flown off to fulfil their adult destinies was probably the best white lie to have told, something closer to the truth may only have put a pall over your al fresco dining evenings, sitting as you were under the scene of the nursery disaster.

    Contessa: Oh, such sad news about Ruby and I well understand your tears. I hope she died in a state of bliss, her last handful of years being in such an Arcadian paradise as any hen may hope to stumble upon when having taken itself off to cross the road one day. No doubt you have many portraits of her so her likeness can live in inside the casa. xx

    Debbie: My sentiments, exactly! Of course you may take sides with the raven, I shall barrack in the corner of our Australian magpie, which isn't a corvid, despite the name, since we get to interact with them so regularly. They are capital-p personality birds, smart and striking in their b&w livery, with beautiful singing voices, to boot. For the mutton-bird, that's a kind thought, but I'd also put money on its being utterly baffled by being driven about in a car on it's final day. It would have had quite the tale to tell!

  12. Quite an amusing story except for, ahem, the dead bird. I remember one summer when my cousin was here from Canada and he tried to rescue an injured sparrow. That didn't go too well either, if I recall.

  13. Loree: I don't quite know where we get the notion that birds in the wild can be resuscitated by our inexpert hands. In the wash, I can't recall anyone ever having the magic touch. Golly, we do like to try, though.

  14. Tales of wild birds, many of whom seem to enjoy the brushy corners and branches of my own garden, really are a big part of my own life. I care for them best I can with food and water, secret houses tucked here and there, suet treats now winter is imminent. . . . .and they reward in so many ways. Right now they are probably the main reason we are still here in this house - a condo with just a space for a few garden pots would be so much easier. . . . . . but where would I have birds to watch, love, and yes, sometimes save?

    I love your stories - thank you for all the time you invest in amusing us.
    Mary x(now awaiting Thanksgiving here, but just so you know, I don't eat the turkey!!!!)

  15. Mary: Oh, thank you for your lovely words of appreciation! I imagine that even a casual visitor to these pages will have noticed that divertissement is the name of the game here, for myself, initially, and if any chose to come along for the ride, I'm utterly delighted to have them perched upon the back seat ... in spite of the occasional wildlife tale gone pear-shaped. We are uber-lucky in this city to have lots of birds to watch but nothing really matches the wondrous encounters we had when we had a home near bushland, so I can sympathise with the hold your home has over you. We never fed our native birds so I'd not heard of suet treats, but they sound delicious even to me! Turkeys I know very little about, either. The Xmas bird is something we've not had for yonks for no reason other than hot weather and hassle, so I'd not waggle a finger at you if you ate yours, but I admire your bird solidarity. x


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