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New Zealand Bird Songs

The War of the Birds

page 38

The War of the Birds

Said the Shag of the green river to the Shag of the grey sea:
“Come now into the swamplands and eat my food with me.
The sea is cold and salty; it gives with grudging hand,
But sweet the fare and meet the fare that stirs up on the land.”

Then the Shag of the green river led the Shag of the grey sea
Where the toi-tois plume their heads, and eels slip lazily.
The sea-bird dived and caught an eel and ate with clucking note.
“Now bring it back,” the land-bird said. It glided up its throat.

The sea-Shag then was angry, as angry as could be.
He vowed a vengeance on the bird that mocked the shining sea.
He led him to the ocean and bade him dive therein.
The land-Shag, swooping, saw below a sharp and shining fin.

page 39

The sea-Shag watched him eat it, nodding a slow old head,
“And now, my doughty land-bird, just bring that back,” he said.
“Oh, easy!” said the boaster—in innocence he lied,
Its bitter fin-points pierced him, he gave one cry, and died.

And all his angry kinsfolk came wailing up the sky;
The air was black with pinions—a gale of birds blew by.
They fell upon the sea-birds, and battle was begun;
They darkened land and ocean; they blotted out the sun.

They died upon the water, they died upon the sand;
But others came in hosting from ocean and from land.
And who were there the victors there is not one that knows,
Except the secret waters, and the wise wind that blows.

But still at nights they tell it, in hushed and solemn words—
Wing fighting wing in tumult—the battle of the birds.