World Tour Highlights: 15 Favourite Birds

I’ve never really been fascinated by birds the way some people are. I think they’re interesting as creatures, and I like to see new ones, but I’d never go on a bird-watching expedition or get excited about spotting a particular suspecies of nondescript little brown bird. That said, I’ve encountered some pretty neat ones on the trip. So list number eight in the World Tour Highlights series is all about birds.

1. Ostrich

Ostriches are without a doubt the dumbest creature ever born - not to mention one of the dumbest-looking. They’re big, mean, and completely insane. Their brains are smaller than their eyeballs, which tells you all you need to know about them. Despite their best efforts, though, they’re interesting. They’re huge birds - big enough for a person to ride on, which Sheryl and I did in Outdshoorn, South Africa - a strange little town that I’m willing to accept as the ostrich capital of the world. I’m here to tell you that - Outdshoorn’s ostrich races notwithstanding, giant birds are not meant to be ridden. You have to hook your ankles around its neck, grab onto the base of its stubby wings, lean way back and hold on for dear life as the black bag is pulled off the ostrich’s head and the stupid thing goes insane, running around at top speed. With every step its knees smash you in the feet. Ostrich jockeys have a way of steering them by karate-chopping them in the neck, but it was all I could do to hold on - you can’t stop them, you just have to fall off when you’re done. And then the ostrich tries to kick you (lie flat, ostriches can only kick forward, not down - although they can still peck really hard). After all that, if you still want to, you can eat it; ostrich meat is good, healthy, low-cholesterol red meat and ostrich ranches are becoming popular around the world.

Image courtesy of Sheryl

2. Hornbill

The Malaysian state of Sarawak in Borneo calls itself the Land of the Hornbills, though I think I saw about the same number in Africa. Hornbills are big, heavy birds like toucans, but with even larger, thicker bills that have a massive horny keratin casque in front of their eyes. Their calls resonate through all that beak like an amplifier - you can hear their knocking, booming voices for huge distances. Their distinctive square-cross shape while flying over makes them easy to identify.

3. Vulture

Nasty creatures, but necessary scavengers. Hideously ugly in their appearance and in their eating habits. The sight of a flock of them covering a dead hippopotamos in Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park is still vivid. They like to eat the soft bits first, going in through the eyes and mouth, and then wait until the carcass swells up under the hot African sun and bursts, so that they can get at the insides.

4. Sociable Weaver

Tiny African birds with big architectural habits. They build massive community nests out of twigs and straw that engulf whole trees and can house thousands of birds. Often preyed upon by tree snakes and cobras which take up residence inside the nests and eat dozens of chicks at a time.

5. Penguin

Our first experience with penguins was near Cape Town, South Africa, where there’s a colony of Jackass Penguins you can visit (they’re named for the sound they make) - another colony is nearby at Simonstown. They’re very used to people and you can approach them. There are signs warning you not to try and touch them because they can give a nasty bite, but their feathers are so oily and smooth-looking that I had to know what they felt like, so I poked one in the bum while it wasn’t looking. Surprise - it felt like a bird.

We didn’t see penguins again outside of a zoo until New Zealand’s South Island more than two years later. In a town called Oamaru there’s a colony of Little Blue Penguins; we saw a few wandering around and a lot more squashed and dried out on the railroad tracks. We saw a few more Little Blues in the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. Further south is the territory of the endangered Yellow-Eyed Penguin. At Nugget Point I gave myself eyestrain staring out of a hide onto the beach for three hours, waiting for a few of them to return from the day’s fishing. I wouldn’t have bothered if I’d known that the very next day at Curio Bay there would be two that were so used to people that they happily posed for photos no more than three meters away.

6. Cormorant

Skinny black long-necked swimming birds with webbed feet that look like they’ve been dipped in oil. We saw them used as fishing birds along the River Li in Guangxi Province in China. The fisherman ties a string around the trained bird’s neck so that any fish it catches don’t get swallowed, but stay in its neck pouch, and when the cormorant jumps back onto the boat the fisherman takes the fish. I remember one evening in Yangshuo, watching a narrow little bamboo boat disappearing into the misty purple dusk until all I could see were the silhouettes of the fisherman’s conical hat and the heads of his birds turning and peering in all directions.

7. Rooster

Not exactly exotic birds, but they deserve a mention here because of how much they torment budget travellers in Southeast Asia. There’s always at least half a dozen within hearing distance of your bed. I don’t know where this rooster-crows-at-dawn nonsense came from - it’s nothing even close to the tructh. The goddamned things crow all day and all night long. They never shut up. I don’t think I had a good night’s sleep anywhere in rural Laos, Cambodia or Vietnam because of the brainless things.

8. Swiftlet

A small wedge-shaped fast-flying brown-grey bird like a swallow, seen in uncountable millions all through Borneo. Each can each hundreds of mosquitoes in one night, which alone would endear them to me. They build their nests in the ceilings of caves, and every year the nests are harvested and exported to service the voracious Chinese appetite for birds-nest soup. Swiftlet-nest export has become a massively lucrative industry - a single kilogram can command prices upwards of $2000. The town of Kumai in southern Borneo, in the Indonesian provinces of Kalimantan, seemed to have more huge grey windowless apartment buildings for swiftlet-nest farming than it had houses for humans.

9. Cockatoo

Camping in Australia’s Top End, we woke up most mornings and went to sleep most nights (or tried to) to a cacophony of noise from a giant flock of squawking, screeching, chattering Sulfur-Crested Cockatoos. There can be hundreds of these gregarious birds in a flock, and it’s fun to see them completely covering every tree in a field. They’re bright and curious birds with dextrous feet. You’ll know if you’ve caught the attention of one when it raises its bright yellow crest of head feathers straight up in the air. Its cousin, the rarer Red-Tailed Black Cockatoo, is usually seen in pairs or alone.

10. Kookaburra

Kookaburras are the largest member of the kingfisher family, which I didn’t realize until I had it pointed out to me; after that I couldn’t understand how I’d missed it. They’re much bigger, heavier versions of their tiny darting blue cousins (which we saw in a few places in Fiji and Southeast Asia). Kookaburras always seem a little on the crazy side to me, with their shrill, cackling laugh. We’d see them here and there through Australia, sitting in trees or scrounging food around picnic areas. I remember one in particular that sat hunched on the table next to us only a meter away and waited very politely for our crumbs.

11. Kiwi

New Zealand’s famous kiwis, I am firmly convinced, do not actually exist. They’re a fabrication of the New Zealand tourism industry to sucker people into visiting. Anyone who claims to have seen one is lying. I’ve spent more than seven months total in New Zealand, and probably cumulative days hunting for kiwis, and I’ve never seen one. Even in zoos or private kiwi house exhibits, they’re always conveniently “sleeping” when I visit.

12. Weka (and Robin)

Birds in New Zealand are strange. I don’t just mean that they’re funny-looking (which most of them are), I mean they’re very oddly-behaved. Wekas are flightless brown sort of swamp-chicken things about the size of a duck, and New Zealand robins are cheeky little black beady-eyed guys. Both these species of bird always seemed to think my shoes were food. I can think of half a dozen times that I stood bemused, looking down at a weka or a robin pecking at the toes, yanking on the laces, or scuffling at the heel of my shoes, while they were on my feet. They’d go at it single-mindedly for five minutes sometimes. I never really figured out why my shoes always seemed so appetizing to them. Not a lot of survival instinct in New Zealand’s bird life, I don’t think.

Video and photo courtesy of Sheryl

13. Pukeko

Yet another weird New Zealand bird in a list full of them, and one of the funniest-looking. A member of the rail family, they’re long-legged birds that look like what you’d get if you stretched a duck vertically - if a duck were bright blue with a bright red triangular beak and red legs with three weirdly long toes. Despite that, they’re probably the most normally-behaved bird in New Zealand.

14. Fantail

Another New Zealand bird with odd habits. Fantails are cute little black birds with white bellies, about the size of a golf ball. They flutter along behind, beside and ahead of you on forest trails in ones or twos, chirping cheerfully and snapping their tails open in the wide black and white spread that gives them their name. You’re never without a fantail escort when walking in New Zealand. This gives them the reputation of people-loving birds, but really they’re just after the bugs stirred up by your feet.

15. Kea

Keas are big, bright green parrots that live in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. I think the whole idea of a mountain parrot is really funny all by itself. The keas must agree, because they’re complete clowns. They love to tumble around acrobatically in the air. They’re intensely curious and love to tear things apart to see what’s in them - including backpacks, tents and even cars. Their strong, razor-sharp beaks and dextrous feet mean that even the toughest fabrics, plastic or rubber are no challenge to them. You hear a lot of horror stories while hiking in the South Island about what happens when a kea decides it wants to know what’s in your pack. I love them, but then they’ve never torn my stuff to pieces - not yet, at least.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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