The weka is not an animal that you would normally consider to be capable of causing widespread mayhem and even damage inside a house, is it?
That’s what I would’ve thought, too, when I first moved to Westland back in 1988. Why wouldn’t I? The weka is a small brown flightless bird no bigger than a chicken, mercilessly chased and often killed by every dog that sees them. In fact, somehow they enrage even the smallest and seemingly most harmless dogs. Dogs that run from cats and wag their tails at postmen suffer from uncontrollable bloodlust the second they catch sight of the brown-flecked feathers disappearing into the bracken.
It wasn’t long however, after I began to clear my piece of land and tried to plant vegetables, that I realised they were not completely harmless. Any bare earth, especially freshly dug earth, is an open invitation to wekas to continue the process with far greater ferocity than any rotary-hoe could imagine. Nails, screws or anything lighter than a hammer left within weka-reach, will also simply disappear.
Apparently, 12 breeding pairs were released in the area of the West Coast I had chosen to live, some years before I got there and, whereas they were rare in most parts of New Zealand, here their numbers had approached plague proportions. All vege patches had high razor wired fences and were under constant surveillance from weka-cams and patrolling dobermans.
Still I had no real inkling of the type of disasters these wonderful representatives of our unique fauna could precipitate. That was until one day it rained.
Rain itself is not unusual west of the Southern Alps. Heavy, driving rain that roars on tin roofs, accompanied by lightning bolts and incredibly loud crashes of thunder, is also not unusual. Add an earth tremor or two, and it might get a mention in the pub the next day, but perhaps only if the road splits open, making it hard to get there.
Anyway you may think I’m exaggerating. Well . . up to now perhaps a little. But the events that occurred the day the weka came in from the rain really did happen (mostly) and the evidence in the house, ten years later, is probably still there.
The rain was heavy, very heavy, and the lightning was spectacular. We stood at the window and watched as great forks of jagged light struck the forest canopy time and time again, not 200 metres away on the other side of the river. Then there was a sudden lull. The roar of the rain ceased, and there was complete silence for just a few seconds.
Clack….clack,clack,clack… clack,clack, came from behind us in the kitchen. We turned, and there it stood above the plastic cat’s dish with jellimeat plastered all over its beak.
The cat, totally affronted that a weka would use its personal door and help itself to its food, sat with an arched back on the steps above, transfixed with astonishment. But in less than a nanosecond Trixie, our friendly, intelligent, scared of sheep, gentle fun-loving bearded collie, sprang into a frenzied rage. My own reactions were incredible though. As Trixie lunged, so did I. I caught her in mid air and together we flew into the leg of our new wooden, kitchen table, which proved to be less sturdy than we had previously believed. There was a loud crack, and down came the table on both man and dog, followed by everything on it. Smashing glass, exploding earthenware and lunch careened around the kitchen floor, while the big bowl of brewing, homemade elderberry wine spilled half of its contents on the light brown carpet of the adjacent living room.
Like a soldier in the midst of battle, my mind sharply focused and my body reacted instinctively. As the weka disappeared into the hallway, leaving behind part of what it had just eaten, I ejected Trixie through the sliding doors onto the veranda.
“Where’s the weka?” I shouted above the screams of my wife and daughter.
“In your bedroom?” my son replied who stood laughing and pointing around the corner of the door. He was about to go after it.
“Don’t chase it!” I yelled. I remembered that wekas are not well toilet trained when they get a sudden fright and that they can produce an impressive volume of material if inspired to do so.
I pushed my son aside and quietly began to tip-toe towards the bedroom.
“Open the back door and stay there so you can help me direct it out…slowly,” I whispered to him.
I entered the room and slowly dropped to the floor and peered under the double bed, ignoring the bruise on my thigh, attained from breaking the table leg. It hurt as I began to slither under the bed but I needed to be calm. The weka was hard up against the wall at the bed-head and in the corner next to the bedside cabinet. One terrified red-eye glared at me and one claw began to rise in defence as I carefully approached.
“Come on weka… its alright,” I soothingly said as my hand reached out to prod it gently.
KA….BOOM! I think the house took a direct hit from a bolt of lightning. Simultaneously the weka viciously pecked the back of my hand and drew blood and, instantaneously, in a reflex action, my head jerked upwards into the sharp iron framework of the bed.
The weka panicked. Somehow it saw its only escape directly over my prostrate form, and it moved so fast that the now released contents of its bowels didn’t reach the outside world until the bird was somewhere over the middle of my back. A split second later my leg received the same gift, as did about ten places across the bedroom floor and down the hall towards the back door.
The story could’ve ended there. At this point there was only a broken table, broken dishes, stained carpet, a bit of a mess and wounds that would heal, to worry about.
But we forgot about Trixie.
She had been pacing the outside of the house looking for a loose weatherboard or something she could tear open to enable her to join in the fun, but she didn’t see the lightning coming. Almost before the after-image of the flash had gone from the air she was in the garage, close to the back door and howling loud enough to waken all her ancestors since wolves and men first met.
The weka had forgotten about Trixie too…and the lightning. Just as the bird was centimetres from freedom it struck again. Trixie bolted for the open door, the weka froze in its tracks and both animals collided against the coat stand to begin a desperate life and death struggled amongst a swirling mass of parkas and gumboots. I, dripping with weka excrement, waded in again. I found a struggling dog somewhere inside an old coat and attempted to free her but, in her panic, she jerked her body so hard that we both fell against the wall. This time it was wall-board that proved to be not as strong as I’d first thought.
At some point a flailing foot had kicked the door and it had slammed shut, giving the weka no choice but to try its luck deeper inside the house again. This time it found the stairs and galloped past the still astonished cat.
Upstairs the weka remained in a state of panic especially because the suddenly interested cat had raced after it and was now performing great feats of acrobatics around the furniture, taking advantage of the weka’s less than controlled state of mind. Several vases, items of computer hardware and still drying pieces of artwork on the floor had all received cat and weka treatment before the freed Trixie arrived, followed more slowly by my limping self.
It seems like slow motion to me now. As I reached the top of the stairs and peered around the wall, a barking dog slid across the room on a rug, as a prize piece of greenstone I had found a month earlier in a river-bed catapulted from a collapsing table and destroyed the biggest window in the house, the one that gave us the best view of the river below and the forest beyond. And then, behind the pulverizing pounamu, came a large brown feathered bullet whose bird-brain had told it that attempting to fly was its best option.
It didn’t… but the weka did manage to clear the shattering glass that rained from the house and hit the ground running as another bolt of lightning chased it into a bracken infested gully.
Cat, man and dog stood stunned at the opened window for some time as the rain blew directly in. Weka feathers slowly drifted down from the ceiling and landed in the puddles that were now forming on the floor and trickling towards the stairs to drip into the cat’s dish below.
Clack…clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, clack, it went.
By the end of the week the rain had finally stopped.
© Keith Tonkin
Read our interview with Keith Tonkin.