Don’t fly drunk.
Some claim—I don’t know if it’s true or not—that one of New Zealand’s endemic birds, the tui, occasionally partakes of fermented nectar from plants and gets drunk, flying around in a particularly frivolous, unsteady manner.
The tui, (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae), is a member of the honeyeater family of birds. This medium-sized bird has a blue, green and bronze sheen to its wings and body. Its characteristic feature however is two prominent white curled feather tufts that hang off its throat.
Captain Cook, who seems to have seen and commented on darn near everything in this country, had this to say about the tui in 1773:
Under its throat hang two little tufts of snow–white feathers, called poies, which being the Otaheitean word for ear–rings, occasioned our giving that name to the bird; which is not more remarkable for the beauty of its plumage than the sweetness of its note. The flesh is also most delicious and was the greatest luxury the wood afforded us.
The tui was also called the parson bird by early European settlers since the bird’s black appearance accented with a tuft of white feathers on its neck made it look like a minister or parson.
Tui have curved beaks and special tongues that allow them to lap up nectar from plant flowers, and they are important pollinators of many native plants here. Several New Zealand plants actually have flowers with a shape similar to the tui beak, suggesting co-adaptation and co-evolution between these plants and the bird.
When I’ve seen them, there have been a fair number of them in a single flowering tree, often a kowhai tree which has characterisitic yellow bell-like flowers. The birds seem quite ecstatic or at least very happy moving from branch to branch and flower to flower, occasionally quarrelling amongst themselves.
Apparently at the beginning of breeding season, the males form circles and engage in song battles trying to out-sing each other. Another courting behavior is for a male tui to fly high up into the sky, stop and then dive down toward the ground. Typical crazy male behavior, huh?
Tui songs are variable.
At first, I wasn’t sure what was the sound the tui made, or I thought I was hearing several different birds. There would be fluid, melodic little songs and then coughs, grunts or wheezes. Then a different song. Sometimes there would be sounds more like R2D2 from Star Wars. Then more melody followed by clicks, cackles and squeaks. It was all the tui.
Tui actually have two voiceboxes, and can also imitate most other birds’ songs and have been trained to talk similar to parrots. It is said that Maori used to keep them in cages and train them to memorize and repeat elaborate welcoming greetings up to seventy words long. They can also sing in a range outside of human’s range of hearing so their throats can be moving although we can’t hear anything.
Finally, tui are also one of New Zealand’s earliest risers, and sometimes start singing as early as 3 or 4 AM. An amazing fact particularly if they’ve been out drinking the night before . . .