Waxeyes. So there!
I’ve always called them waxeyes, but these days ornithologists and bird watchers favour silvereye. Knowing I was about to start a post about them, I’ve been making a concerted effort to refer to them as silvereyes. But it hasn’t worked – it just doesn’t feel right.
Talking with June about them recently, I practised using the current name. Also, for good measure, trying it out on a couple of friends who came round for a meal last Sunday. I sounded apologetic, tentative. I ended up using both, like some double-barreled name: “silvereye” [pause] “waxeye”. Our friends didn’t quibble about it, one way or the other.
They’re also known as ‘white-eyes’ but that sounds dull to me. ‘Wax’ and ‘Silver’ have a poetic ring about them, especially when you imagine them encircling an eye. Maaori call them ‘tauhou’. Refer to anything in a tongue as inherently musical as ‘te reo Maaori’, and you’ve got a good chance of adding connotations that are all to the good.
‘Blight birds’ – alliterative, even evocative, but definitely not musical – is yet another name they were given. This time by orchardists because they ate the sap-sucking woolly aphids which produce those woolly white clusters on fruit tree twigs and branches.
We particularly notice waxeyes at this time of year because a small flock of about twenty birds feast on the tiny red berries on a Cotoneaster tree we walk past every time we go between the backdoor and the garage. And individuals or pairs will perch on the bare branches of a peach tree that’s on the other side of the drive, directly opposite the Cotoneaster. From our vantage point, eating lunch in the sunroom, we can watch them flitting from one tree to the other.
Flitting more apt than perching – they don’t stay still for long. I’d hoped to get a shot of a pair that regularly, but very briefly, snuggled up close and personal on a peach branch, but one or other would fly away too soon.
In 1966, when ‘wax-eye’ (hyphen omitted these days), was in vogue, the ornithologist Gordon R. Williams wrote:
Wax-eyes made their permanent invasion of New Zealand in, and probably before, 1856, being carried willy-nilly across the thousand-odd miles of the Tasman Sea by the prevailing westerly winds and weather systems of these southern latitudes. … That the arrival of wax-eyes is indeed historically only very recent is borne out by the Maaori name of tauhou or ‘stranger’.
When you’re an immigrant, a stranger (despite having lived in New Zealand for sixty years), the waxeye, by comparison, is a true native. As Williams says:
… it reached [New Zealand] entirely by its own efforts and is a permanent breeder. We have a number of birds in New Zealand, all originally Australians, that must now be regarded as natives. For example, spur-winged plovers, white-faced herons, grey teal and wax-eyes.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.