Birdman George stands stock-still – only the sound of wind pushing its way through the thick glossy banana palm leaves can be heard – and everyone in the small group of people mimics his unwavering stance. He steps nimbly off the dirt track and stares piercingly into Atiu Island’s jungle canopies. He lifts the fingers of one hand to his mouth and makes the sound of a Rimatara lorikeet. There’s a flash of colour and one bird moves. Darts. George calls out, laughs to himself, and makes the noise again. There’s another flash of colour and two birds move closer so that the twitchers in the group, all tense with high hopes of seeing some of Atiu’s birds, gasp. Then there’s a unison of sighs quickly replaced by a swishing of camera lenses.
Hundreds of years ago, local people intently watched these birds too, but for a different reason: their stunning red plumage was plucked and used to adorn the ceremonial clothing of Polynesian chiefs.
Atiu is the third largest of the 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands, and its 27 square kilometres is a haven for birds. There are native doves, pigeons, kingfishers, flycatchers and lorikeets, and unlike many Pacific Islands, Atiu has managed to protect and breed them, gradually killing off the invasive pest that is the dreaded myna bird.
George is employed to look after the 30 or so Rarotongan flycatchers (Kakerori) that were brought to Atiu between 2001 and 2003 for a recovery program. In 1992, the birds only numbered 29 in Rarotonga, so moves were made to ensure numbers didn’t dwindle further. Rats from ships regularly docking in Rarotonga were killing the flycatchers, so George also sets rat traps at the island’s entry point to keep his beloved birds and the island safe.
The Rimatara lorikeet was also taken to Atiu for safety in 2007, and today they are flourishing. The lorikeets’ young, fresh from the nest, were being killed by the myna as soon as the hatchlings took their first flight. that’s one of the many reasons that the 400 residents of Atiu agree with the $2 bounty on the mynas' heads.
George takes his guests into the jungle and out into fields and crops to show them the many species of plants used for food and medicinal purposes. He also fires up an impressive earth oven on which he prepares a traditional lunch of fish, chicken, fruit and salad for his tour guests. After a few hours trekking about Atiu looking for birds, it’s a welcome rest. It's then that George shares local tales and legends, and explains that Atiu was originally called Enuamanu. Fittingly, that translates as 'Island of the Birds'.