Wizard of Oz in a single adjective

The Identity of the Hakawai' was published by ornithologist Colin Miskelly in June 1987 in NOTORNIS. Miskelly is a fluent and versatile writer, so the article is an interesting snap of his early style.

Conventions for academic journals are strong, and it's hard to meet the conventions and still interest a lay audience. Miskelly certainly succeeded, even though the article is about 90% hard data. How did he manage that, I wondered?

Well, he writes in plain language: that makes a world of difference. Some sentences are inevitably long, but they're constructed logically. As sole author of the article, Miskelly had the opportunity to write expressively and share his fascination with the subject matter. And it is fascinating: a detective hunt for the invisible bird responsible for the hakawai.

Even on the few islands where it was known, the hakawai was rarely heard. The call was heard on calm moonlit nights and came from a great height. A human-like rendition of its name, hakwai, hakwai, hakwai, was followed by a considerable roar, as of a bird travelling at great speed.

The roar is described variously as a cable chain being lowered, a jet-stream, a blind rolling itself up or a shell passing overhead. All witnesses agreed that the sound was eerie, even hair-raising. Because of Maori myths about the hakawai, speculations about the invisible bird's identity included a spirit bird, a monstrous, extinct eagle (Harpagornis?), or a large seabird. But, to quote from Miskelly's meticulously considered deductions:

all the available evidence indicates that the hakawai of the southern muttonbird islands was an aerial display of Stewart Island Snipe.

That's a tiny brown bird that nests on the ground, and is not often seen flying at all, let alone performing aerial displays on high. But what struck me is how powerfully a single adjective resonates in a sea of data.

The photograph of a snipe is captioned, 'Male Chatham Island Snipe -- the unpretentious source of a legend?' Now you could say unpretentious is anthropomorphising - but a scientist would never be guilty of that. No, the word encapsulates the astonishing fact that the terrifying mythological creature was just a tiny brown bird that usually hides in the grass. The Chatham Island Snipe is New Zealand's own Wizard of Oz.




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