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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Sylvia and the Birds by Johanna Emeney and Sarah Laing

Sylvia and the Birds is the remarkable true story of how Sylvia Durrant, the Bird Lady, saved thousands of sick, injured, and lost birds and how you can too!

Sylvia was born in 1933 on a farm during the Great Depression. Unloved and unwanted, she spent much of her childhood in foster homes. Despite such a rough start she grew up to become a generous, warmhearted woman who loved caring for others.

Her life changed when she spotted an advertisement from the Bird Rescue Centre in the local paper asking for people to feed baby birds every two hours from daylight to dark and volunteered for the job. She loved it and was so good at it that they kept sending her more sick and injured birds to care for. By the time she retired in her eighties she had cared for 140,000 birds.

Many people on Auckland’s North Shore fondly remember taking injured birds to her or seeing her taking penguins for a daily swim at Campbell’s Bay.

Towards the end of her story, Charlie, who was one of her bird volunteers when he was a boy, comes back for a visit and a chat. Two cheeky kererū, sitting on a branch, eavesdrop on their conversation and make witty comments.

I think it was such a clever idea to bring Charlie, who is a great role model for youngsters to emulate, into Sylvia's story. He is a fully fledged conservationist now and tells her about his own big conservation adventure, but confides in Sylvia that:

Sometimes it all feels a bit hopeless-there are so many threats, it’s hard to see what kids can do to protect our birds.

Sylvia reassures him that there are practical things we can all do.

The rest of the book is filled with lots of activities including how to spot birds, do a bird count in your own backyard, match baby birds to the adults, and guessing which different birds use their beaks for. There are projects too for building a feeding station, or a bird bath, doing a beach cleanup, and planting to attract birds.

And there is more! In this jampacked miscellany there is also information about the predators who are harming our birdlife and the aim to make NZ predator free by 2050. As well as an excellent short introduction to Te Ao Māori and Kaitiakitanga and how Ngāti Pārau helped to protect kororā at Napier Port.

Once Sylvia had nursed her penguins back to good health and they were fit enough to be released they would be sent to predator free islands like Tiritiri Matangi where they would be safe.

Last week, on the way to a day’s volunteer guiding of a group of schoolchildren on Tiritiri Matangi, I thought of those penguins and how they too had made the journey across the channel to a new and safe home.

I had tucked Sylvia and the Birds into my backpack to show to some of the other guides as we headed there on the ferry. They were as enchanted by it as I am and felt it would be a great way for families to learn more about our precious birdlife and how they can help to protect it.

Writer Johanna Emeney and illustrator Sarah Laing worked together to make Sylvia and the Birds into a very engaging non-fiction comic which makes it especially appealing to young readers.

But people of any age would enjoy it and can join in the conservation effort as renowned octogenarian author CK Stead shows in the amusing poem he contributed to this book on how he heroically managed to save a bird from the clutches of his cat.

I found Sylvia and The Birds a moving, informative, and humorous read and would highly recommend it!

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

Massey University Press


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