Mauritius is known throughout the world for an extinct species, the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) whose cousins were also found in Rodrigues and on Reunion Island. This bird with atrophied wings is said to have been decimated by rats imported from the Dutch Indies who raided their nests for eggs. However, Mauritius is home to a long list of birds, of which J.-M.G. Le Clézio and his wife describe ten in their “little lexicon of the Creole language and birds” (Sirandanes).
We could mention, for example, the Malagasy Turtle Dove with its burnt Sienna throat, the Spotted Dove whose black neck is adorned with white polka dots, and the Pink Pigeon, saved from extinction thanks to the Gerald Durrell Zoological Park in Jersey. The pingo, local name of the Scaly-breasted Munia (Lonchura punctulata), erect in its brown suit, prefers blooming grasses, as do the Waxbill with its red beak and the dazzling Yellow-fronted Canary, a pure joy to watch. The latter also enjoys the seeds hidden in the small filao (casuarina) pinecones. The bats, now a protected species, have multiplied and now pillage the fruit harvests; the graceful kestrel, an endemic raptor, almost became extinct because of pesticides, and the furtive Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher, with his sad song, bears a telling name (Terpsiphone bourbonnensis desolata).
Weaver Bird Yellow-fronted Canary
If Le Clézio does not necessarily mention them in his books, he includes the weaver birds, the Myna birds, the fody and other visitors in gardens and fields. Aunt Catherine associates them with the enchanted days of childhood in Révolutions: “There were so many birds there, at Ébène… They never stopped chirping. Cheeky, beautiful little yellow birds, waxbills, red fodys, others with a crest, they are called bulbuls” (R, 30). As early as 1798, his ancestor Marro raved: “Each morning before sunrise, our garden is filled with all colours of birds, some bright red, others which evoke African parrots, Pink Pigeons, and Indian blackbirds with their raucous chorus” (R, 227).
By the sea, “gasses” and curlews try to catch minnows, as Alexis notes, when he bothers “flights of “gasses”, of cormorants, of curlews” (Co, 15). All varieties of seabirds “live between sky and sea” (VR, 131), “at the edge of the lagoon”, “boobies, terns, seagulls, albatross, “gasses”, cormorants, petrels, frigatebirds, skuas, fulmars, plovers, guillemots […]”(VR, 70), says Le Clézio, following his habit of enumerating to underline the rich fauna on the one hand, and his effort to insert himself in, to belong to the Mauritian landscape on the other. One cannot forget the “radiant white tern”; “[…] their wings hums like a boiler” (Q, 240) in the Indoceanic sky. Birds liven up the narratives of the Mauritian cycle with their songs, their chirping and their fixed granite gaze. Their flights streak the sky from the Boucan to Rodrigues, to the confines of Flat Island, from the memories of Rozilis to the mythical Euréka, even when Le Clézio dreams of ships bearing bird names, “frigates, schooners called The Swallow, The Albatross, The Swan” (S, 86).
Among the species he mentions again and again, Le Clézio is partial to the emblematic Mauritian white-tailed tropicbird.
The white-tailed tropicbird (phaeton aethereus), “mythical bird, almost magical in its beauty” (S, 86), is white, with a red beak, “blueish legs” (Q, 308), and “trailing him his long luminous tail” (S, 86), white or red (phaeton rubricauda), according to the species. “Their harsh pupil [sparkle] like a black diamond” (Q, 308). Living in pairs in cavities “like burrow entrances” (Q, 309) out of the cliffs, tropicbirds are mainly found in the Rivière Noire Gorges, at the mouth of the Great River South-East and on the North islands. Kiiirêk, “their raucous cry, like the sound of a rattle” (CO, 109), can be heard from afar. “They soar at length […], with open wings, like seafoam crosses, […]. Laure says they are the souls of sailors who died at sea” (CO, 69). They are the omnipresent witnesses of The Quarantine with “their strident calls, rolling like whistles” (Q, 141) and “their lidless eye waiting for the sun” (Q, 377). In The Prospector, they reappear like a leitmotiv, like timeless “celestial bodies”, to bring happiness to people and sing God’s praises (CO, 366). Others even consider them as African gods.
In marked contrast with the tropicbird and its graceful flight, the Myna bird, “tropical robin” (S, 84) with its black feathers and yellow beak, comes from India. An opportunistic, aggressive chatterbox, it can exhibit tender moments with its mate and keeps a protective eye on its young.
Le Clézio refers to what Mauritians call their nightly prayer in the Spanish oaks or banian trees: “At night, when the Mynas chatter in the majestic trees of the garden, Mam’s soft young voice is dictating a poem, or saying a prayer” (CO, 25). It’s the music of childhood, “soft, light, almost elusive, blended with the light on the trees’ foliage” (ibid.).
Red (Madagascan) Fody Mauritius Fody
The fody, its eyes “outlined with a fine khol line” (HP, 220), takes on feminine attributes in “Secret Love”, while the male bird wears a bright red summer livery. This fody, a Madagascar native, must not be mistaken for the Mauritius fody, with its greenish body and red head, quite rare nowadays. Curious in nature, gregarious and joyful, the fody is compared to the “girls, convent boarders, when they dance together in the yard, jingling their copper ankle bracelets” (HP, 220). “It whistled gravely, it had very soft rolling calls, twirr, twirr, then very shrill, a kind of call, it barely opened its beak and screeched fwit, fwit, fuyiit […]” (R, 30).
The zebra doves with their mournful song, “run between the sugar canes, fearful but not daring to take flight” (CO, 52). Grey, with a pinkish throat, the zebra doves wake up Catherine every morning in Rozilis: “they stir, they shake their wings, one of them cries out softly, ourrou, ourrou, another replies somewhere in the shade ouourrou-ou […] (Q, 31). Le Clézio describes admirably the crescendo of those “very soft cries” which merge with the rustle of wings at daybreak. Those languid birds like luxuriating in the sun and spend hours pecking unhurriedly.
The bulbul (Pycnonotus jocosus) with their white throat, red cheeks and behind, black wings and crest, prefer papayas and bananas on the tree. This shy bird voices joyful trills and often tilts its head on the side, as if to listen closely. Alexis finds “a feather from a bulbul’s head” (CO, 97) after the cyclone, while Andrea compares the prison girls to “lost birds, impertinent mynas, bulbuls, weaverbirds stealers of sugar” (HP, 220).
Mauuritius Grey White-Eye
A passerine bird, the Mauritius Grey White-Eye, often called “cassava bird” in Creole (Zosterops mauritianus) is grey with some white above its tail. Restless, it moves in groups in trees and bushes in search of insects. Its creole name is akin to idiot, simpleton (S, 92).
“There are also frigatebirds the most beautiful birds I have ever seen, shiny black, their huge wings unfurled, their long, forked tails floating behind them. They slide in the wind above us, quick as shadows, rattling the red sacks at the root of their beaks” (CO, 166). The frigatebird (magnificens), looting seabird with a wide wingspan, is “the very picture of beauty and cruelty” (S, 78). This bird gave its name to a ship, to one of the islands in the Seychelles, the very island where the pirate La Buse is said to have hidden his treasure.
It is interesting to note that although birds are mentioned in numerous pages of the Mauritian cycle, as a constant presence in daily life, no bird in mentioned in excerpts of the same Mauritian cycle referring to other geographical areas, except for a brief mention of storks, in an abstract manner, during a conversation (R, 284). We could extrapolate to suggest that birds are inextricably linked to his “small motherland” in Le Clézio’s imagination and that their presence – or simply their passing through – awakens in him, and in his characters, the stirrings of Nature, the intrinsic cheerfulness and the freedom of an island anchored in a vast ocean: “I envy their lightness, the swiftness with which they slide in the wind, without being bound to the earth” (CO, 216).
LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G., Le Chercheur d’or, Paris, Gallimard (Folio), 1990 ; Voyage à Rodrigues, Paris, Gallimard (Folio), 1986 ; La Quarantaine, Paris, Gallimard, 1995 ; Révolutions, Paris, Gallimard, 2003 ; Histoire du pied et autres fantaisies, Paris, Gallimard, 2011 ; LE CLÉZIO, J.-M.G. et Jemia, Sirandanes suivies d’un petit lexique de la langue créole et des oiseaux, Paris, Seghers (Coll. Volubile), 1990.
© Photos Eileen Lohka.