Kia kaha kawaupaka
Kia kaha kawaupaka
“Vilified, condemned, outlawed, and with a price on its head, the shag stands as the declared enemy of mankind. Its chief crime is that it has transgressed the law that any animal that comes into competition for food with man has no right to live, a crime that is held to deserve nothing less than indiscriminate persecution.” Ornithologist, WRB Oliver, 1930.
What’s in a name?
This is a question that has been asked for centuries.
It is far more than an interesting philosophical query.
In the United States ‘African American’ and ‘nigger’ provoke quite different reactions. So much so that in the re-make of the Dambuster’s movie by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, there has been huge debate as to whether the squadron leader’s dog should be called Nigger. Historically accurate, but many thought it was not appropriate to use the name in entertainment media today.
Words, especially names, are powerful.
Interestingly there is a parallel in the world of nature (albeit without the serious consequences surrounding the use of racist epithets).
In New Zealand cormorants are called shags – it is thought to be a colloquial reference to the shaggy crest many cormorant species have when they are in breeding plumage. While not exclusive to New Zealand – the term is used in several countries – ‘shag’ is dominant here and imbedded in our culture. There are dozens of place names such as Shag Rock, Shag River, Shag Point, and so on. ‘Shag’ is so near exclusively used that if you ask any New Zealander if there are cormorants in their country, I predict that most would answer ‘no’.
In the same vein, if you asked many New Zealanders what they thought about cormorants, they’d probably say something like: “Marvelous birds, isn’t it wonderful how Asians have trained them to catch fish!” But if you asked them what they thought of shags (especially if you asked people keen on trout and salmon fishing), they’d probably say “bloody vermin.”
Same bird, different name, different reaction.
Indeed, this country has a history of persecuting these birds. Kawau (Black shags – Phalacrocorax carbo) had a bounty on their heads offered by acclimatisation societies (today’s Fish and Game New Zealand) for the presumed impact of shags on the trout fishery (ironic given that trout are an introduced species that have had a devastating impact on populations of native fishes). Between 1890 and 1940 many colonies were exterminated.
It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that kawau finally received partial protection as a native species, but only after several scientific studies proved that shags have little impact on the sports fishery, taking mostly native eels, small native fish and perch (the latter themselves an introduced fish species that have become a pest). I always find it ironic that humans will persecute an animal for preying on a species that they (the humans) themselves want to catch and eat, which is the point that Oliver (quoted above) was making as far back as the 1930s, long before the bounty on shags was lifted.
Occasional destruction of shag colonies and/or shooting of individual birds still occurs, albeit illegally, and, as I have suggested, there is still an anti attitude toward many shag species particularly by those who still believe, wrongly, that they impact on sport fishery species.
Maori in New Zealand had a different attitude. The birds were admired for their straight, unswerving flight and there are many whakatauki (proverbs) referring to this. An example is:
said to be the last words of Maniapoto to his people, instructing them to take the flight of the shag when entering battle.
Shags were not an important food supply for Maori but were occasionally eaten. Shaggeries in trees or on cliffs were visited to take the young before they could fly. These shaggeries were known by special names and were often given as evidence of occupation in the Maori Land Court.
Worldwide there are 33 species of shag in freshwater and marine habitats. Of these, 12 species breed in New Zealand including eight that are endemic.
In spite of growing up in a fiercely keen trout fishing family whose early attitudes to shags reflected the mores of the time – pests and a threat to the trout fishery – I’ve always rather liked these striking birds (but then, I was always the least keen angler as well). As a youngster I delighted in their habit of sitting spread-winged on a handy rock or branch, feathers translucently spread to the light to dry after a period of diving for food; I’d laugh with excitement when one popped up onto the surface with a fish in its bill, dexterously juggling the fish to be able to swallow it head first so that the spines on the dorsal fin were folded down and would not catch in their throats. Perversely perhaps, I even liked their smelly colonies and would look for the telltale stains of their guano on the trees and cliffs as a clue to a good place to photograph and observe them.
Once, when I was about 12, I was snorkeling at one of our favourite fishing lakes trying to find snagged lures to retrieve and sell for pocket money to fishermen to re-use. I was joined by a shoal of perch attracted by the invertebrates I was stirring up from the mud with my flippers.
Suddenly there was a flash of light and the perch whirled away in all directions, except for one unlucky straggler that was caught fast in the bill of a kawaupaka (little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos). The bird and I surfaced together and from the vantage point of only a few feet away I was treated with a shag’s-eye view of the kawaupaka’s dexterous juggling as it tossed, then swallowed the fish whole . . . absolute magic!
These photos then, are a tribute to the industrious, resilient, straight and true shag. May they always grace our waters and brighten our skies.