Environment – Matariki ducklings

This year, Aotearoa New Zealand celebrated its first ever Matariki public holiday. It was a distinctly Kiwi event, celebrated nowhere else; a happy acknowledgement of our own historic cultures and ways of knowing the world.

Honouring the rise of the nine whētu (stars) of the Matariki cluster, also known as Pleiades, the day was sunny, aptly signalling the ‘new year’, the solstice and the coming of spring. It even felt like spring, especially in my garden with the arrival of a clutch of 10 ducklings.

Collectively, Matariki represents hope for the future and abundance. The lead Matariki star signifies wellbeing, good luck and peace. The star Pōhutukawa honours those who have passed away.

Tupuānuku represents fruitfulness in the ground; Tupuārangi is abundance of the sky and its birds. Waitī reflects the goodness of freshwater; Waitā reflects the fruits of moana (the sea). Waipuna-ā-rangi celebrates the value of rain; Ururangi is the wind; Hiwa-i-te-rangi is about the hopes for a prosperous season.

Those 10 little Matariki ducklings seemed both auspicious and fragile, hopeful and doomed. Hatched under the stars of promise and prosperity, of freshwater, wind and rain, as their mother huddled them all under her wings, we could only offer them chook wheat and hope.

According to Fish & Game research, introduced mallard and native grey ducks are so interbred that you can’t tell them apart, and that numbers across the country are declining. Most ducklings die within days of hatching; habitat loss means they’re left to take refuge in shelter belts and drain-side vegetation, which are also corridors for predators. Older mother ducks lead to better duckling survival, but many of us have seen ducks eaten by pukeko, hawks, cats, and hit by cars. We condemn pukekos for killing ducklings, but duck shooting is a popular ‘sport’.

The Matariki ducklings’ mother – naive, trusting or reckless – left them for extended times in my garden, and probably elsewhere besides. They were often on my doorstep seeking more chook wheat, standing on their little webbed feet, flapping their tiny stumpy wings. I hoped the auspicious stars under which they were born – and all that chook wheat – would help them survive.

However, as I write, there’s just one plump and plucky duckling left. Maybe the inevitable subsequent spring clutches will fare better and, before too long, I’ll have dozens more ducklings in the garden, creating muck, havoc, heartache and more hope. I’ll be an anxious surrogate – all those threats, all that quacking, all those little lives. I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t born a duck.

But the magnolia stellata is now in flower. Every day there are more, and brighter, blossoms in my borders. There are daffodils in the mud. I’m reminded of the philosopher Camus, who said ‘in the midst of winter, I found there was in me, an invincible summer’. Matiriki, and ducklings, remind us of this wisdom, of the persistence of nature – despite the current cold and rain, there are sunny days and brighter futures to come.