Never have I seen so many fantails around as at the moment, and when I say "never" I mean probably not since the same time last year. The little buggers are everywhere.
A couple turned up this afternoon and perched in a creeper that covers my porch. The creeper is hideous and every autumn I hack it back to nothing before withdrawing for the winter. But when I emerge in spring, there it is again, thicker than ever. It seems impossible to get rid of. I don't know its botanical name, but I call it Winston.
The fantails like it, though, and everyone likes fantails. When I say "everyone" I mean everyone except ornithophobes. I've met only the one ornithophobe. He was a 15-stone former lock forward and he was driving a minibus. His passengers consisted of a dozen expensive foreign children, me and a wounded pigeon.
The pigeon had been attacked by other pigeons and would have died if the expensive kids hadn't come to its rescue and put it in a shoe box.
The driver didn't know I'd got a pigeon in a shoe box and I didn't know he was an ornithophobe. Then the pigeon flapped its wings. The driver opened the door and jumped out. We were doing about 15 miles an hour. I managed to grab the wheel and save the lives of the expensive children, but the driver refused to get back in unless the pigeon got out.
So I announced that I was going to place the pigeon in the care of a bird sanctuary round the corner.
As I opened the passenger door a French boy said: "You're going to kill ze pigeon." I ran.
Round the corner there was a park with railings. I wrung the pigeon's neck and lobbed the corpse into a bush. When the kids caught up, I was leaning casually on the railings, pointing high in the sky and pronouncing a miracle.
The only reason the pigeon had been willing to sit in a box on my lap was because it was sick. Healthy birds keep their distance from our species, wisely when you consider our record. But fantails have a habit of fluttering close, which is perhaps why we're so fond of them. We think they like us.
This morning, one of the birds actually perched briefly on my forearm. I could sense the tiny grip of its claws through my sleeve. Here was a wild creature - exquisite, impossibly delicate, faultless - and I felt honoured. But my delight made no more sense than the bus driver's terror.
Had the fantail been a vulture, say, I would have felt differently. And had I been an insect, I would have felt differently again. For to insects, fantails are not pretty little feathered things. They're mass murderers. Which only goes to confirm that truth is relative, feelings deceive, and everything depends on point of view.
According to Maori superstition a fantail in the house means that someone's going to croak. Now, my porch is clearly not inside the house but I'm less confident about my garage. It's in the basement and fantails regularly pop in there for a spot of jolly old insecticide. Should I be worried? I could consult my local kaumatua, but I doubt that traditional tribal lore has much to say about garages.
And anyway, I'm not going to consult the kaumatua because a fantail in the garage is as much of a threat to my life as a wounded pigeon is to a bus driver.
Why are we so persistently silly about animals? The nonsense starts young.
I was brought up on The Wind in the Willows, Paddington Bear, Winnie the Bloody Pooh and Beatrix Potter, whose animals all had names, wore clothes, spoke English and went shopping.
Today's parents are happy to read their children the story of The Three Little Pigs while cooking them a bacon sandwich. And when Knut the runt polar bear was born, Berlin Zoo sold fluffy replicas of his adorability to a million wide-eyed infants. All of whom, if he'd managed to reach maturity, Knut would have seen as snacks.
In short, we sentimentalise animals, we mythologise animals, and we consistently fail to see them for what they are, which is rapacious little buggers out for world domination. In other words, they're just like us. But I still find fantails beautiful.
- The Dominion Post