The island of Nanuku Levu is smaller than Oprah Winfrey’s back yard, and maybe smaller than her bath tub, but it has a lot more crabs. It also has a lot of birds which, if you’re still somewhat amused by schoolboy humour despite being in your 50’s is fantastic as they are mostly Boobies.
I love Boobies, and they are on permanent display here day and night, whether it be rain or shine. Wet, hot, and sometimes both. We have 2 varieties – the Red-footed booby, which has red feet, and the Brown Booby, which is black and white, so whoever named that one was having a bad day since it’s basically a mutant penguin.
The island life has brought the usual complacency that comes with a lack of predators. Hold your arms out and with a bit of patience one (or two) might just drop into your hands. Walk along the beach and they will, disconcertingly if you’re not prepared for it, hover right over your shoulder. Friendly, tolerant, inquisitive, and sometimes just dismissive, they share the island with us and we try not to annoy each other too much.
On this island paradise though, a young chicks path to adulthood is a torrid affair. The parents feed both chicks, they are not abusive, but the siblings are genetically programmed to try and turf each other out of the nest. Eliminate the competition. Survival of the fittest. (I think a booby nest is called a brassiere if it has 2 in it, but don’t quote me on that). Once exposed, even if the chick survives the drop it will be ignored. There are no rescue missions, and no care packs delivered. After a few days, or sometime a week or two for fledglings, it will die of hunger.
One day not long after I’d arrived on Nanuku Levu, and unaware of this birdy behaviour, I found a surprise visitor on the deck. A young red-footed booby, probably about 3 weeks old. At that age they look like 2-legged sheep – white and fluffy, but with a not-sheepy face and not-red-not-sheepy feet. It almost died there and then, a mix of complacency and helplessness keeping it rooted to its spot despite a size 10 flip-flop bearing down on its beaky little face.
Doing what every grown man should do in todays world when a youngster needs help, I looked around aimlessly for parents, and then left it alone thus reducing the risk of any charges being brought against me. Kidnapping, assault, bird-trafficking – defending myself for acting in a sensible and helpful manner was not on my todo list.
The next day it was still there, rooted to exactly the same spot awaiting another near-death experience. Looking up at me sheepishly it made a half-hearted attempt at hopping from one foot to the other before pecking at my toes. At this point I figured the parents were not going to claim their baby, and I was now Daddy. And it was way past feeding time. Under normal circumstances one of the parents goes out fishing from early morning til dusk, returning to regurgitate fish and squid at dinner time. I had a tin of tuna, and not much enthusiasm for regurgitation, so we were gonna try spoon feeding.
What ensued was a rather comical affair with Daddy being extremely tentative and wary of young beakychops beaky bits, while he (or she) saw the spoon as a threat and jabbed away at it splattering tuna and vegetable oil everywhere. I probably managed to get about 4 teaspoons down its throat by sheer luck. After feeding time, being an experienced booby handler, I picked him up, brought him inside, and plonked him on my desk. Since he seemed averse to walking anywhere I figured he’d be OK. And there he sat and watched me work, occasionally clucking away and pecking at items on the desk.
As the days went by we gradually improved the feeding routine, working our way from tinned tuna to tinned mackerel, and eventually up to small, whole fish caught caught by my workers here. Doodoo got bigger, found the use of his feet, knew when feeding times were, walked around on the deck, and had a box with a blanket to sleep in at night. He seemed happy, and was quite an amusing little chap. He would sit in the sun on the deck during the day idly chatting to me and the workers as they passed by, and sleep in his box just inside the door at night. He’d crap the equivalent of quick-dry concrete all over the deck outside, do the same all over the floor inside. Daddy was the cleanup guy, but I was already cleanup guy for the few hundred other birds that crap on the deck every day, so one more didn’t make much of a difference. I’d make video’s of our feeding times and post them to Facebook and they turned out to be very popular. In a short space of time he had kind of become part of the team.
A few weeks later we were renovating the deck – replacing broken and rotten boards, re-sanding, and re-oiling. Not long after this work started Doodoo suddenly got sick – weak, lethargic, and no appetite. He died within 24 hours. I’m not totally sure, but suspect a combination of sawdust and decking oil fumes blocked his nasal passages or screwed up his the lungs.
I’m not an overly sentimental person. He would have died if I hadn’t picked him up that day. And I knew he would probably die even with my amateur rescue efforts. But he was quite a character, and I did get attached to him so it was quite a sad demise, even more so if us humans had been the masters of it. It may have been complete coincidence, a viral infection of some sort. Who knows.
I wrapped him in a bio-degradeable shopping bag as an alternative to the traditional Fijian funeral mat, dug a hole by the beachfront bench that looks toward the sunset, and buried my little friend.
Since then, each breeding season, many boobie chicks have been pushed or fallen from their nests.
Since then, I just walk on by.