Neither here nor there

Peter Pickersgill
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Nominating a new provincial bird

Regular readers of this column will no doubt be familiar with my love of spotted sandpipers, the tiny, elegant, vocal shorebirds I have written about before. In fact, I can hear some of you groaning now, "Oh me nerves, here he goes again with the shorebird thing. It must be spring."

You're right. It is spring and here I go again.

The part I love most about the spotted sandpipers is that of all the shorebirds on the beaches and in the bogs of this province, the spotted sandpiper is the only native. They are born here, and I marvel every year at their bravery and tenacity in enduring the first weeks of their lives, starting from the early age of 30 minutes. Dressed only in a thin layer of fluff they alone are responsible for searching out their own food in the often harsh conditions this place can dish out during the on-again, off-again season we call spring.

Their stay-at-home dads are their only protection, their moms having flown the coop looking for love. Chirping orders at them, their fathers try to keep them warm, dry and safe from predators. If they remain alive through the down-covered puffball stage until they can fly, their chances of survival improve dramatically.  

Then, like human adolescents feeling the first surges of independence they sometimes get cheeky with their fathers and talk back when given instructions. Just like human kids, particularly young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, yearning for still more independence, they take off.

While the young humans take off on a plane headed west, the sandpipers, shunning the tar ponds of Fort Mac, fly south to the Caribbean where, with luck, they will survive the slicks coating the water there.

While the young people and birds head in completely different directions, what happens next is just the same. They long to return to where they come from. So they do. They fly home.

After a summer home though, both birds and humans start to feel the migratory urge, and come autumn, they're gone again.

It is the reason I would like to nominate the spotted sandpiper as the new provincial bird of Newfoundland and Labrador. It is native born, but goes away when necessary, but no sooner gone, can't wait to get home come summertime.

I know we already have a provincial bird: the puffin, or sea parrot, Fratercula Arctica, or frat to its friends. The puffin was declared the provincial bird in 1991 and good for it. It's a cute little critter weighing in at 500 grams, it's stubby little wings, spanning only 55 centimetres, still manage to propel it up to a surprising 80 kilometres per hour in the air and steer it fast and gracefully underwater.

"It is native born, but goes away when necessary, but no sooner gone, can't wait to get home come summertime."

Like the spotted sandpiper, puffins are native born Newfoundlanders and Labradorians too, burrowing into the ground for shelter, the females laying one egg annually during a lifespan of 25 years and not leaving home — ever.

In that way, they are similar to the ideal their human compatriots dream of, staying home if only they could, perched safely in their cosy seaside dwellings, darting out every now and again for a meal of fish.

That is the puffin ideal, but the life of the spotted sandpiper is more realistic.

Why I want to be realistic, I can't really say. My late sister Jane would laugh out loud at the very notion of her brother being realistic. In addition, she would not be very happy that I was proposing another bird take the place of the puffin as the provincial bird. Jane loved puffins, and would drive long distances out of her way to see them.  

But it was as a collector that her admiration for the puffin knew no bounds. She collected photos of puffins, drawings, paintings, etchings, lithographs and silk screens of puffins. She collected puffin scarves, hooked mats and wall hangings. She had puffin wood carvings, napkin rings and brooches.

She was obsessed.

So obsessed that an Australian film company that was producing a TV series on people with strange hobbies sent a crew to Gander to shoot a piece about Jane. She belonged to a group of puffin fanciers who communicated worldwide about everything puffin.

Her Internet address was puffin lady. People sent her every kind of puffin paraphernalia imaginable. After she died her husband found a puffin in the freezer. There's a puffin engraved on Jane's headstone in the Traytown cemetery.

Reading over the last paragraph, I can see that it would be entirely wrong of me to insist that the spotted sandpiper replace the puffin as the provincial bird. That would never do. While it is the spotted sandpiper who mirrors the reality of life today in this province, the puffin expresses the ideal life Newfoundlanders and Labradorians aspire to.  

Maybe we could have two provincial birds. They could work together to represent this province. We could call it a coalition.


Geographic location: Caribbean, Newfoundland and Labrador, Gander

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Recent comments

  • Donna Eschen
    June 09, 2011 - 19:24

    Peter, I know you will be wondering how your article came to me but I get Google newsgroup info on anything puffin and skim through it. I immediately recognized your last name from my many emails with Jane. You see, I also collect "anything puffin" and go to great lengths to see them. I however, never had one in my freezer but I do have a stuffed one near my fireplace, which is "shhhhh" illegal in the US. Jane and I had sent many pictured and packages to each other and I loved her puffin chair. I remember after her retirement. ( and all of the puffin goodies she got then) and her trip to Africa, sadly she passed away. Now that I have been retired for a few years it would have been fun to have met. I believe she found me through my website puffin which I have since ceased. Anyway, just wanted to send puffin greetings and to let you know she was so enjoyable to email around with. Donna Eschen. California