I recall vividly the familiar dark meat, the sweetness, the crispy skin, the roasted juices and the hunger for protein.
Eating the roasted bird thirty years later, tears come to my eyes.
It hurts to eat this much memory.
Luckily it’s a small bird and drool replaces the tears.
Eating birds all these years later reminds me of the moment in the cartoon ‘Ratatouille’ when the cantankerous food critic tastes the simplest of meals – Ratatouille and flashes back to a moment that his mother called him in from the kids bullying him and serves him the warm, familiar dish.
Long-term memory sits next to smell in our brains and so smell, and by proxy taste, sends us hurtling back into the past.
I need only smell lilacs and my grandmother walks into the room.
Taste the birds of Pukapuka and I’m a child on the shore again.
This last week, Tawalalo, caught some five hundred birds from Motu Kotawa.
Each of us received three small birds each and sat at Motu Uta on the main island roasting them over bonfires of kikau leaves and coconuts.
“It tastes like duck,” said Jari Zapp the English teacher, “it’s not much meat but delicious, a real delicacy.”
The children could not agree more as they ran around waving their prized roasted birds in the air.
Bird catching happens only on the motus, especially Motu Kotawa where the birds nest.
The lopa from Yato, which looks after Motu Kotawa have the best bird catching abilities.
Then come the lopa from Ngake village, which looks after the reserve of Motu Ko. The lopa of Loto village and Motu Uta where no birds nest have a more urbanized life and rarely catch birds.
Bird catching season only happens during the vainga when Te Kau Wo Wolo opens the motus for six months of the year.
One sunny Saturday morning, we went out to Motu Kotawa to liko manu.
We climbed into the aluminum boat for the twenty-minute ride across the blue lagoon.
We walked around the island scoping out nesting spots.
“There’s one,” said Maia.
I could not see a thing.
He walked into the bush and started climbing the coconut tree. “Quiet,” said one of the kids as I stepped on a kikau branch.
The slightest noise can send the birds flying away.
After about twenty minutes of stillness and staring at the coconut tree I managed to see the slightest sliver of a brown tail move next to a brown coconut.
“I have no idea how you all manage to have ex-ray powers of observation,” I said, “Seriously you have eyes on the back of your head.” They had already moved onto spotting the next set of flutters metres in the distance.
After about half an hour Maia returned empty handed. The boys laughed at him.
“It’s hard to catch them during the day,” he explained, “it’s much easier at night.”
Still after about three hours of circling the island, stopping to eat some uto, chatting, taking a swim and surveying the trees, the boys managed to catch six birds, four lakia and two kaka.
We plucked and roasted them before returning to the main island of Wale.
The next time we went to catch birds on Motu Ko.
“Girls can catch birds too,” said twelve-year old Tori.
She took me to the airport where most of them nest. “The short trees and the wind make it a good nesting spot,” she said, “but you have to listen to the village. We can only catch certain birds and only at certain times so we don’t disturb their laying eggs.”
Teoamua Anker who grew up on Motu Kotawa as a child said, “There’s different sounds for different birds too.
You can call to the birds with singing, but in general you have to be very quiet because they fly away at the slightest movement.
That’s why its best in windy conditions, if you move a branch they’ll think it’s the wind.”
“Night time is the best,” everyone explained.
The children carry flashlights and Tori said “you shake the light in the eyes of the bird and it stuns them and then they fall down.”
The children especially love catching birds and keeping them for a while as pets.
Bird catching season can be dangerous too. “One time in my youth,” said Tai Lavalua of Yato village, “we went to catch birds for a village feast. We climbed the Pukama trees, the high trees at dusk and waited there for the birds to come home to nest. A cousin of mine he fell asleep waiting up there and fell from the tree and died.” Teaomua Anker, his nephew, agreed, “it can be very dangerous climbing the tall trees and easy to fall while holding on with one hand and catching birds with the other.”
Catching birds is a dangerous art form day or night.
The next time I went back to Motu Kotawa, I noticed some of the boys using nets.
There are a lot of different ways to catch birds and different birds require different ways of being caught.
“This is a wuata,” explained Pita Lavalua, “its wakayei manu.” It involves climbing the tree and scooping the birds while they fly. There’s a smaller net too that involves scooping the birds from their nest.
Some birds are best caught with a net while the fledglings require catching with the hands.
Bird hunting is a lot like fishing; if you want to catch tuna you go trolling and if you want to catch malolo you use a net.
“The Kotawa is the hardest one to catch,” said Yalia, “it doesn’t nest on the motu and so it can only be caught by throwing sticks or rocks at it while it flies through the air.”
“My favorite and the easiest one to catch,” said Tori “is the tavake, it just sits in the bush and nests, but its tule right now, not allowed.”
The takupu nests in the tall pukama trees, making it one of the hardest.
There’s the striking method of throwing birds off branches with the hands or a stick. There is noosing and snaring, line catching, netting and the most commonly used method of simply hand catching tango manu with the great skill of observation, silence, patience and a quick hand.
Pukapuka has at least seventeen bird species recorded.
The most common ones eaten include the kaka, the white or ghost tern, the ngongo, the noddy tern, and the laki the black tern.
The kotawa, the frigate bird, is a favorite but hard to catch.
The lupe, the pigeon, the takupu, the booby, and the tavake, the scarlet tailed tropic bird are all favorites and bigger with more meat too, but they are tule or not allowed.
Lupe also becomes a common name for a lover, “my love or my pigeon.”
The Pa Enua doesn’t eat birds. “I remember going to the Purapura Games in Manihiki in 2006,” said a Cook Islands News reporter, “and I was so impressed with all the Pukapukans catching birds.”
I asked Papa Charlie if he ever caught birds in Rarotonga, “sure he said, you go to the mountains and catch them.” “Only in Pukapuka and Nassau do we eat birds,” explained Pita Lavalua, “the rest of the islands have a superstition about eating birds or don’t like them.”
Pita Lavalua answered most succinctly the joys of liko manu, “its great fun catching birds. It’s a game. Its great fun and then of course it feels good to be able to feed the family and the village.” It’s a great delicacy worth trying, if you can find someone to catch you one.