Beastly Journeys: Unusual Tales of Travel With Animals is a new anthology from Bradt focusing on true stories about travelling with animals. Writers include David Attenborough, Dervla Murphy, Gerald Durrell and Dom Tullet (the winner of last year’s Edward Stanford Travel Writers Awards New Travel Writer) to name a few. To celebrate its launch, we have a couple of the stories from the book for you to read online. Here is Jack Sparrow by Rachel A Davis.
by Rachel A Davis
‘Is there a bird in here?’
We looked at one another, then gazed around the room just like everyone else, feigning curiosity. Yes, there was a bird in the room. There was a four-week-old house sparrow in a cooler bag on my lap, peeping because she was hungry – or perhaps she was also interested in this introduction to the Art Deco architecture of Napier, who can say?
The thing with raising a baby sparrow is that they are always hungry, so they have to go everywhere with you. We were trailing behind a walking tour group, taking in the 1930s architectural details while at the same time feeding a bird in a bag as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
We were two British backpackers visiting New Zealand and staying with friends. Jack the sparrow had fallen from an unseen nest on to the lawn during a storm: a big yellow bill and a tiny, virtually featherless body. With a lot of time on our hands, we took on the task of keeping this little sparrow alive, staying awake through the night feeding it mushed cat biscuits. The days passed and feathers transformed her into a shy but friendly chestnut-brown bird. From the very beginning, we had repeated her name every time we had fed her, in the hope that it would train her, and it had worked. If we called her name, she would flit or hop back to us.
We were preparing to set off in our campervan for a few weeks over the festive period, however. She would have to come with us.
As we drove through the spectacular scenery of the North Island, Jack perched on a wooden spoon between us in the front of the camper, or would hop on to our arms and nap. Sometimes she would snuggle into the nape of my neck and tease my hair with her beak. What a funny sight we looked, the three of us, cruising down the highway!
Arriving at campsites, we would set her down on the grass and she would flit about, testing her wings. When it got dark, Jack would put herself to roost on one particular spot on the curtain wire between the cab and the bed space every night, tucking her head under her wing. If we stayed up late drinking and chatting she would sleepily glare at us with one annoyed eye peeking over her wing. As the sun came up she would start to peep; one of us would sit up and she would hop on to our hand, after which we’d lie back down and the three of us would nap for another hour or so.
On days out, we would pop Jack into the cooler bag and take her along with us, feeding her when she was hungry and letting her out when it was safe to do so. Jack had quite a few adventures with us during those weeks on the road. Early on she joined us on an afternoon tea cruise along the Waikato River on a paddle steamer. This was before she had fledged so there was no worry of her flying into the river. Instead, while I sipped tea and ate scones she perched on my arm and watched the world drift by.
At Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, near Rotorua, Jack took her very first flight to me in the car park. I’d set her down on some grass for a peck about and then called her by name, and she flew up to me – much to the delight of a small party of tourists who had just hopped off a bus. Her sunrise peeping meant that we didn’t miss out on an early-morning soak in the blissful geothermal waters – she was the perfect alarm clock.
She also visited Tongariro National Park, under the shadow of Mount Doom, and had a drive around the Coromandel Peninsula where she napped most of the time and missed the beautiful views. Another time, I missed out on visiting Cathedral Cove because it was too warm a day to leave her in the camper and we couldn’t leave the windows wide open.
At Waitomo disaster struck. As often happened on campsites, fellow campers would wander over to see the tiny bird perched on either our heads or our shoulders. On this particular occasion Jack had flitted from us on to the head of a woman who had come over to chat. Taken aback, the woman became flustered and, just as Jack hopped off, a gust of wind blew her high into a huge nearby tree. We called her repeatedly, but this was higher than she’d ever flown and we couldn’t see her in the dense foliage. We knew that at some point she might fly away, but this was too soon – surely she wasn’t ready? We couldn’t wait for her, as we were booked on a black-water rafting tour through the subterranean Waitomo Caves, to drift through the darkness under a starry black ‘sky’ of twinkling glow worms. With very heavy hearts we left Jack in the tree and joined our friends.
Four hours later we returned, after an exhilarating cave experience. I expected her to have vanished, but far across the lawn was a small bird. As I got nearer, I called her name. The little bird lifted its head, then flew towards me and up on to my shoulder.
It was amazing watching her develop as the weeks went on, seeing how instinctively she knew how to preen, how to fly. As she grew, we bought her meal worms and wax moth larvae so she could eat live food, and she loved finishing off our corn on the cob – the inexpensive and abundant bounty of a New Zealand summer road trip.
Having Jack along for the ride made this time in New Zealand really special. She was a perfect travel companion, making so many friends as people loved coming over to meet her.
In the new year we returned to our friends’ place, near Cambridge in the centre of the North Island, and spent a month helping them with their smallholding. Jack would join us in the vegetable patch learning to find her own food; any good grubs and bugs we found as we weeded were greedily devoured by our little friend. Pulling into a petrol station in the town one day, the guy at the counter declared, ‘You’re the people with the bird!’
We couldn’t stay in New Zealand forever. I checked, but we couldn’t take Jack back to the UK. Our little travel companion had learnt to fend for herself, but she wasn’t wild enough to go free. We found her a wonderful home in Taupo, with a woman who rescued birds. Judi updated us via email, sending us pictures. Jack did go wild in the end, but regularly visited the bird feeders in her garden: the one little sparrow who was more fearless than the rest.
Rachel A Davis has lived nomadically for a decade, travelling the world and living a life on the open road in a van. She spends her winters in the far north of Sweden, working for a tour company under the northern lights. Summers are spent wild and free!
Beastly Journeys: Unusual Tales of Travel With Animals is available to buy for £10.99 here.