I’m a cop – a country cop. My beat is the forest, the seashore and the wetland. My name’s Pete but they call me PJ. I’m a pukeko.
City policemen have offices in buildings and computers and cell phones. My police station is under the puriri tree where I can see over the forest and the wetland and the farms, right down to the town. I haven’t got a computer and I haven’t got a cell phone. They don’t work in the forest. So I get messages by Constable Freddie fantail.
Freddie’s a good chap but he can be a bit over-the-top.
“Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!”
“Cut the cheeping, Freddie. What’s up?”
“They’re all on the ground… Winnie says she didn’t do it …”
“Whoa there! Remember the rules of investigation: what, where and who? What happened, where did it happen and who did it happen to.”
“Right, Sarge. There’s three eggs fallen on the ground under Winnie whitehead’s nest in the beech tree. They look like hers but Winnie says she didn’t drop them. And she’s still sitting in her nest on another big egg.”
I fished in my feathers for my notebook.
“So Winnie had four eggs in her nest and now she only has one?”
“Dunno about that. Winnie can’t count past two. But she’s sure she had more than one egg and the eggs are on the ground right under her nest.”
“Has someone eaten the eggs? Like a rat?”
“Nope. Two of them are cracked but that would be from falling on the ground.”
“Hmm. So where’s the thief? Why didn’t the perp take the eggs away or eat them on the spot?”
“What’s a ‘perp’, Sarge?”
“A perpetrator, you bird brain! The person who does the crime. But I don’t know if this is a crime… we’ll take a look, but first I have to be at the school for the road safety lesson.”
I stashed my notebook, straightened my feathers and hung my police badge around my neck.
“Can I come, Sarge?”
“Sure. You need a few lessons in road safety.”
“I’ll finish patrolling the forest and meet you at the school.”
I walked down the valley to the school. I could have flown but I prefer to walk. School was held in a clearing under an old pohutukawa tree. Its branches bowed low to the ground, shading the school chicks and making seats for them to sit on. The fantails, kereru, tomtits, riflemen, whiteheads and warblers perched on their branches. On the ground in front of them sat weka and kiwi, who couldn’t fly, with young pukeko beside them. The naughty, noisy kaka chicks had to perch on a special branch in front where the teacher could keep an eye on them.
The moreporks weren’t there because they sleep in the daytime. Kahu, the harrier hawk, and karearea, the falcon, weren’t allowed at school. They would eat the other pupils at playtime so they had to be home-schooled.
Katie kereru was their teacher. She perched on a gnarled root at the base of the pohutukawa trunk. In front of her was a sandy space where she could draw letters and write sums. As I came closer I could hear squeaky voices chanting the two times table.
“One two’s are two, two two’s are four…”
Freddie came zooming up behind me, ducking around the branches and narrowly missing a tree trunk.
“Constable Fred! If I had my traffic book with me I’d give you a speeding ticket! And another one for dangerous flying!”
“Aww, Sarge. I didn’t want to be late.”
“That’s what they all say. Now smarten up and follow me.”
The chanting faltered as we came into the clearing and Katie cried, “Stop! That’s enough, class. Here is Sergeant Pete and Constable Fred. Please come to the front, Sergeant.”
I went forward and stood beside Katie. Freddie stood in front of me. I gave him a swift kick in the tail feathers.
“Over there, constable.”
Freddie fluttered over to the base of the pohutukawa and sulked. I began my talk.
“Good morning, class.”
“Good morning, Sergeant,” the students chorused.
“Road safety,” I said in my solemnest voice. “It’s a matter of life…” I glared at the smallest weka, who was giggling… “and death.”
“Did you cross the road coming to school this morning?” I asked him. I knew he had.
“And what did you do when you came to the edge of the road?”
“Me? I ran. Fast – across the road.”
“Ah. And you know what will happen to you, one day?”
“You’ll get squashed by a car. Kahu’s dinner, that’ll be you.”
The class gasped.
“This is what walking birds should do. First, stop at the edge of the road. Listen. What are you listening for?”
“Er – er – cars, sir, and trucks.”
“That’s right. Cars and trucks are noisy. But it’s all quiet so next you look. You look this way, and that way, and this way again.” I turned my head from side to side and the class copied me, their little heads jerking to and fro.
“If you can’t see anything coming, it’s safe to cross. Then you run!”
“That’s cool, sir.”
“Just remember, weka, kiwi and pukeko, listen and look!”
“Listen and look!” chorused the front row.
I flapped my wings a few times. The draught made a fantail fall off her branch but I needed the air. My armpits were sweaty. This teaching is hard work.
“Now,” I sternly addressed the perching birds, “you fly across the road.”
“Yes, yes we do.”
“But some of you fly too low, and some of you swoop down. Miss Kereru, I’ve seen you swooping.”
Katie kereru nodded. “I do,” she admitted. “We pigeons like flying up and swooping down.”
“But don’t do it over the road. You might smash into a fast car. Splattered, you’d be, blood and feathers all over the windscreen.”
The class shuddered and a whitehead fainted. Perhaps I’d better tone it down.
“So just remember, fly high! Then you’ll be safe. That’s all.”
“Fly high!” shouted the class.
Katie kereru bustled forward. A rifleman thanked me in his squeaky voice and the kiwi brought me a basket of tawa berries. They’re not my favourites but of course I said ‘thank you’.
“You were great, Sarge!” cheeped Freddie as we made our way back to the forest.
“Fly high!” he shouted suddenly.
I got such a fright I dropped the basket and the berries rolled into the moss.
“Just practising,” said Freddie.
“Look what you made me do! Help me pick them up.”
Freddie rolled the berries across the moss and I put them back in the basket.
“Shall we look in on Winnie, Sarge?” he asked.
I sighed. “I suppose so. And then I’d better get home to Mrs P. I’ll take her the tawa berries. She likes them.”
It wasn’t far to the beech tree where Winnie had her nest. I craned my neck to look up at her.
“Hi, Winnie. It’s Sergeant PJ. I hear you’ve lost some eggs.”
A head poked over the edge of the nest.
“Eggs? Oh, those ones on the ground? You’re nearly standing on them, Sergeant.”
I jumped back. She was right. There were three eggs at the base of the tree, just as Freddie had told me.
“Are these your eggs, Winnie?”
“I dunno. Maybe. But I don’t want them anymore. I like the egg I’ve got. It’s so big. I don’t think I’ve ever had a bigger egg.”
“Oh. So you don’t want to lay a complaint?”
“Me? Complain? Nope.” The head disappeared
“Oh. I see.” I looked at the abandoned eggs. Two were cracked. Probably rotten, I thought. So I tried one and it wasn’t – rotten I mean. It seemed a pity to waste them.
Much later I puffed down the slope to the office. “Time I went home, Freddie. You’re off duty now.”
“Sir.” Freddie lifted his wing in salute and flew away. I set off home. Whitehead eggs are small but three makes a considerable lunch for a pukeko.
Pipi was sitting on our nest in the wetland. It’s a fine nest, though I shouldn’t skite since I made it myself. It is in a raised clump of rushes and I’ve folded each stem inwards to make a comfy platform. Pipi sprang up as I appeared. She seemed a bit agitated but she was probably hungry. She’s been sitting since dawn when I went to work.
“You’re late!” she scolded me. I offered her the basket of tawa berries and she gulped down a couple. Then she peered down at our eggs.
“Wait a moment.” I was about to sit down on the eggs but I paused and looked at them too. They were beautiful, pale brown with splotches of dark brown, grey and mauve.
“What’s the problem?”
“How many are there?”
“How many?” Counting isn’t my strong point. “One, two, four…”
“No! It’s three!”
“Three comes after two, stupid.”
“Oh. One, two, three, four….” I trailed off.
“Six,” said Pipi impatiently. “There are six eggs.”
“That’s great… isn’t it?”
“There were more yesterday. There were seven.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! I can count, not like you.”
“Well, six is a very nice number. It’s quite enough…”
“Oh, you don’t want our chicks!” Pipi burst into tears. “I suppose you’ll think five is enough, and then four.”
“I didn’t mean that,” I said. “You must be starving, dear. You’ll feel a lot better with a bit of food. Go and have something to eat and I’ll look after the eggs. I promise.” I sat down on them quickly.
Pipi flounced off. I sighed. Had someone stolen an egg? Was it the same someone who pushed the eggs out of Winnie’s nest? And did it matter? I tucked my head under my wing and went to sleep.
Before I went to the office next morning I went down to the road where the chicks crossed to go to school. A group of weka came chattering out of the forest. They were about to race across when they saw me and stopped dead. You could almost see their brains whirring. They listened, looked both ways, looked both ways again and then ran across.
“Well done!” I shouted after them.
A kiwi chick came quietly down to the road edge, listened and looked and crossed, touching the road gently with his beak at every step.
“Well done,” I said. He started and scuttled on. The kiwi chicks always have a little sleep when they get to school because they have been up feeding all night.
Katie kereru came past, flying high over the road. She dipped a wing and I waved. I felt quite pleased. It seemed that the road safety lessons were working. I went on to the puriri tree.
Freddie was already there, flitting around in great excitement.
“Boss, I’ve got a message! It’s important!”
“Good morning, Constable Freddie.”
“Oh. Good morning, Sarge. This message, it came from Fanny and she got it from Francis and he got it from the Inspector…”
Oh-oh. This sounded serious. Fanny and Francis fantail were constables in the neighbouring districts and they must have flown in relays to carry the message from the inspector in town. He’s a thrush, a wise old bird and I have a lot of respect for him, but a message like this usually means trouble.
“Well, where is it?”
“The message, Freddie, the message.”
“Right!” Freddie fumbled under his wing and produced a scrap of paper. It was very tatty, as you’d expect after being handled by three fantails. I unfolded it and read:
“Dear Sergeant PJ,
A problem has arisen with the town sparrows. I think it may lend itself to your devious way of thinking and cunning… that’s the way he talks… so I am summoning you to the oak tree headquarters…
“Where’s the rest of it? Look, there’s a bit torn off.”
Freddie poked in his armpit again and brought out a fragment of paper in his beak. I snatched it and smoothed it out.
… tomorrow when the sun is high.
Signed Thomas Thrush Inspector
Greensborough Police District
“Hmm. That means I’ll have to set off early in the morning to reach HQ by the middle of the day. Now Freddie, I’ll be leaving you in charge. Do you remember what you have to do?”
Freddie puffed out his chest feathers, tucked in his tail and stood to attention. “Fly the boundaries, check out any rumours of stoats or ferrets entering the forest, mind the school children, watch out for stealing, speeding, fighting, keep an eye on the kaka…”
“That’ll do. And remember to write up your notes at the end of the day. I shall probably be gone for several days. And if you have any problems, get Emily Weka to help you. She’s applied to be a police recruit and she’s keen to start.”
Freddie snorted. “Emily Weka! Useless bundle of feathers, that one. Naw, boss, I can handle anything.”
I sighed. “If you need a bit of muscle, ask Emily. That’s an order. OK?”
I went home early to tell Pipi. I knew she’d be cross but I planned to ask Patsy to help with the eggs while I was away. Patsy was our chick from last year. She’s taken up with a young bird called Pai and they’d built a nest but they lost it in a flood. Beginners, they’ve got a lot to learn about nest-building and raising a family. Meanwhile Patsy could help her mother with our eggs.
But as I got close to the wetland I could hear Pipi screeching. More trouble. I hurried forward but I didn’t get a chance to open my beak.
“Another egg gone! Look! Look! There are only five now! Do something, PJ, you’re supposed to be a policeman! Arrest someone!”
That was a bit mean but Pipi was upset. And she was right about the missing egg – I think. I tried grooming her feathers to soothe her but when I mentioned I was going away she burst into tears. I found her some worms – that’s the best way to deal with a crisis – and hurried off to find Patsy.
The next morning I woke early. I hadn’t had much sleep because Pipi kept waking me to count the eggs. But they were still five there in the morning and both Patsy and Pai promised to stay nearby and take turns sitting on them. I wondered briefly if they’d like to adopt the chicks. Ooops! Better not let Pipi hear that. But this clutch of eggs will be our fifth family and fatherhood is hard work. All those hungry beaks to fill…
I was quite glad to leave the family behind, put Freddie in charge of the office and set off for town. It wasn’t exactly a vacation but as some pukeko once said, “a change is as good as a holiday” and going to town, even on police business, would be a change. I could have flown and saved time but pukeko prefer to walk. It’s good to stretch the legs and see the countryside. It was a beautiful day and I strode along, out of the forest and across the farmland, keeping a sharp eye out for morning tea.
It turned up in a patch of damp grass beside a leaking cattle trough. The ground was soft and the worms exceptionally tasty. A white-fronted heron flapped down but it kept at a respectful distance. When I’d had enough worms I moved away to let him feed.
“Craaack!” he greeted me.
“Good morning. How’re things with you?” I asked politely.
“Oh, dreadful,” he moaned, yanking up worms with his rapier-like beak. That’s herons for you. Dismal birds, as grey as their feathers. I sometimes have the job of rescuing their chicks because they build hopeless nests, all sticks and holes.
“But these worms are brilliant,” said the heron more cheerfully. “I’ll go and tell Mabel about them.” He spread his huge wings, lurched into the air and flapped slowly away. I walked on.
I had lunch on the edge of town, in a paddock dotted with old cow pats. If you’re ever stuck for a feed, look under a cowpat. It’s a great place to find worms. But this time I ate plain grass. Worms are quite rich and I was going to fly the rest of the way. It’s too dangerous to walk in town. It’s full of people and cars and dogs and it’s not a good place for a pukeko.
When I arrived at police headquarters, the sun was high overhead. I was right on time. Inspector Thrush’s office was in an old oak tree in Central Park. It was reached by a broad branch but I landed rather clumsily – I’m not really a tree bird – and nearly knocked over the duty constable. He was a young blackbird scarcely out of his down feathers.
“Sergeant PJ Pukeko reporting to Inspector Thomas!”
He escorted me along the branch to where an old thrush crouched dozing in a patch of sunlight.
“Errrm!” The constable cleared his throat noisily and the inspector woke up. “Sergeant PJ Pukeko is here, sir.”
“Ah, my dear PJ!” The thrush struggled to his feet. “How good to see you – good to see you. You don’t look very comfortable perching on that branch. Shall we fly down to the park bench? Then I’ll give you a briefing.”
We settled ourselves, me squatting on the ground and the inspector perched on the bench, and he began.
“It’s the sparrows, PJ – it’s the sparrows. We’ve got a lot of them in town and they’re pretty well behaved – for sparrows that is. Just the usual squabbling and disputes over bread crusts. But they’ve taken to roosting in the big elm by the Town Hall. It’s become very popular – roosting in the elm that is – not the Town Hall. Hundreds of sparrows flock there every evening.”
He paused and I nodded encouragingly.
“Sounds like sparrows, Sir. So what’s the problem?”
“Well, there are a lot of them and the nights are long. They poop all over the place, all over the pavement and the cars parked underneath. The mayor’s wife actually slipped over – over on the pavement I mean, PJ, not on the cars. “
I rolled my eyes. Of course I knew what he meant. I’m a policeman, aren’t I? But Inspector Thrush is always very precise, which is a good fault in a police bird. He went on.
“People are making a fuss. One of my constables finds newspapers in the rubbish bins and he’s been reading the ‘letters to the editor’, all complaining about the poop on the pavement. Now he’s read that the council plans to drive the sparrows out of the elm tree.”
“Really, Sir! How would they do that?”
“With water blasters PJ. Disgusting! Just because of a bit of pooping. After all, it’s a natural function of birds – pooping I mean. Sparrows have to poop.”
“Now where was I? Oh, yes. The water blasters. The poor sparrows would topple out of the tree, all wet and probably die of cold in the night. And if that doesn’t work…” the inspector lowered his voice, “…they’ll try poison – poison PJ! Imagine that!”
“That’s terrible! So have you told the sparrows to move, sir?”
“Of course I have,” said the inspector wearily. “But you know sparrows. They won’t listen. They like that tree and they say sparrows have rights. They don’t understand what people can do. You’re a fine, big bird, PJ, and I’ve heard you are really good at teaching the school children, so I thought you might be able to persuade the sparrows to find another tree to roost in. No cars, no pavements. Got it, PJ?”
I was taken aback. If Inspector Thrush couldn’t explain it to the sparrows, what could I do? But he was the boss.
“I can try, sir.”
“Good, chap! Good chap! I’ve called a meeting of all the sparrows for tomorrow morning and I’ve told them you are coming to talk. Now I think I’d better get back to the office and have a rest – I mean finish some reports. Go to it, PJ!”
He fluttered away and I squatted under a bush to think. By teatime I had the beginning of an idea. I made a trip around the rubbish bins and had dinner of fish and chips and batter. I’m crazy about salty, crispy batter. Fortunately Pipi wasn’t there to scold me for eating junk food. But after all, I always eat healthy food at home. You can’t get fish and chips in the forest.
The next morning I had a healthy breakfast of worms and tasty flowering plants from the park flower beds. It was very thoughtful of people to plant such nice food for a visiting pukeko. I drank some water, washed my feathers in a fountain and made my way to Inspector Thrush’s office.
“Sir, I have a plan.”
“Excellent! Excellent, PJ!”
“I only want the male sparrows to come to the meeting.”
“What! Only the male sparrows? Well, if that’s your plan.” He summoned the young constable and told him the new arrangements. The blackbird flew off.
Soon he was back. He saluted. “The sparrows are gathering right away in the camellia garden. All males, sir. I will take you there, Sarge.”
“Good luck, good luck,” said Inspector Thrush.
The constable led me through the park. As we approached the camellia garden, the twittering grew louder. Hundreds of sparrows, all with brown bib feathers which showed that they were boys, were perched on the branches around a clearing. The noise increased as we appeared.
“Order!” shouted the constable, but no one could hear him. A stout sparrow flew down and landed on the grass beside me. He raised his wings and the crowd of sparrows fell silent.
“Greetings,” he said to me, with a little bow. “I am Stanley Sparrow, chief of the town sparrows. We are pleased to meet you.”
There was a twittering from the branches.
“We know Inspector Thrush has sent you to persuade us to leave the big elm tree.”
“Hiss! Boo!” cried the sparrows.
Stanley raised his wings again and the sparrows were quiet.
“We sparrows are proud birds. We have been roosting in the elm tree since we were chicks and since our parents were chicks. The elm tree is our tree and it’s our right to sleep in it!”
“You tell him, Stanley!”
I waited until the hubbub subsided and then stepped forward.
“Greetings, sparrows,” I said gravely. “You are quite right. It is your right to roost in the elm tree, and everyone knows that sparrows are brave birds and not scaredy cats.”
There was a murmur of agreement.
“But there has been a development. Ruru, the wise owl, has seen something new on Twitter.” I crossed my toes as I said this because it wasn’t true, but I thought Ruru wouldn’t mind as it was in a good cause.
“Twitter,” said one the sparrows. “When I fly into cafes I see people looking at it on their phones and computer screens.”
“I’ve heard of it too,” said another sparrow. “It must be important, if people read something called Twitter.”
The sparrows nodded. They were impressed.
“Now you will be wondering,” I went on, “why I only asked the male sparrows to this meeting. You see, the matter is delicate and we wouldn’t want to upset the females, would we?”
I had their attention now. You could have heard a feather drop.
“It concerns the street light beside the elm tree. You will have noticed that its light has been getting brighter of late.”
“Yes, it has!”
“No, it hasn’t.”
“I’m sure it has!”
There was a clamour as every sparrow voiced his opinion. After a while they convinced themselves that the light had indeed become brighter.
Good. My plan was working.
“What Ruru learned on Twitter was that the bright lights might be having an effect on male birds that sleep underneath them.”
“What sort of effect?” asked Stanley.
“This is the delicate bit. It wouldn’t affect the birds themselves but it might affect the eggs their partners lay. The eggs might be infertile, which means they wouldn’t hatch into chicks.”
A gasp rippled around the crowd.
“Have you noticed that some of your eggs haven’t hatched?”
The birds shuffled on their perches. Male sparrows are very proud of raising lots of chicks. They wouldn’t like to admit to having dud eggs. But I knew that every nest has a dud egg every so often.
“Now this is just a theory,” I went on. “It hasn’t been proven – yet. The street light may have nothing to do with eggs that don’t hatch. But then again it may be the cause. I just thought I should tell you – just in case.”
Then I thanked them for listening to me and Chief Stanley thanked me too. The twittering broke out as we walked away. My armpits were sweaty again. This public speaking is very demanding. We found Inspector Thrush waiting by the park bench. He had thoughtfully pulled up some worms for me.
“How did it go – how did it go?” he asked anxiously.
I swallowed the worms and considered.
“Quite well, I think. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Then I told him the dud egg story and he fell over laughing.
“You wicked bird! Of course it’s not true about the light, but it may work. Those sparrows are stubborn little birds. Once they get an idea in their heads, they don’t let it go – I mean they don’t let the idea go, not their heads.”
“You deserve the rest of the day off, PJ. Constable Bill Blackbird, you will show PJ around town.”
I found the town very interesting. I learned about people culture by looking through the windows of the museum and the art gallery. I rather think I could be an artist – if I wasn’t so busy being a police bird. When I got hungry Bill showed me the rubbish bins with the best quality scraps. I ate a croissant, which he said was a French pastry. It was delicious. I’ll have to bring Pipi to town for a holiday one day.
The next morning I slept in. I think it was the pastry. When I reported to Inspector Thrush at the oak tree there were four constables – all blackbirds – lined up on the branch. They cheered when I arrived.
“It worked, it worked!” sang the Inspector. “All the sparrows spent the night in the spruce trees, in the darkest corner of the park! No one roosted in the elm tree!”
I went home with a spring in my step. I was looking forward to telling Freddie about my success.
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