The Life of
Meet Brian Parkinson: A
naturalist and prolific author who, with no formal qualifications, has
become a leading authority on New Zealand's flora and fauna.
A former television reporter, uranium
prospector and English teacher to Bangkok prostitutes. A man who has cheated
death, most notably when a supply drop went horribly wrong and his host - a
New Guinean tribesman - was crushed under a 50kg bag of rice. A man who
flits from scholarly eloquence to four-lettered crudeness. A man who is
anything but your average natural scientist.
When asked how many species he has
discovered, Parkinson waves a hand and mutters self-effacingly, "about 30 or
Seven of those are named after him,
including Oliva Parkinsoni, a carnivorous seashell of the Indian
Ocean; Megalacron Parkinsoni, a tree-dwelling snail of New Guinea;
and Melanotaenia Parkinsoni, also known as Parkinson's Rainbow Fish.
(Now popular in aquariums, Parkinson discovered it in a creek behind a New
Guinea airport while waiting for a flight.)
But for the last decade, Parkinson has
forsaken the creeks and reefs of the tropics and devoted himself fulltime to
writing. The publication of two new books - Butterflies and Moths of New
Zealand and Field Guide to New Zealand Seabirds - confirms his
reputation as one of the country's most prolific nature writers, with more
than 20 books published to date.
It's not a bad achievement for a country
lad who left school at fifth form and started his working life artificially
The strength of the Field Guide to New Zealand Seabirds, according to
Southland Museum ornithologist Lloyd Esler, is that it covers absolutely
"It's got every seabird that's ever shown
its beak in New Zealand, and that's what makes it so useful," he says.
More than 100 species are listed, from the
common and garden Black-backed Gull to the oddly named Masked Booby and the
Chatham Island Taiko, probably the world's rarest seabird.
Once the Taiko must have lived in huge
numbers on the Chatham Islands, says Parkinson, but when humans and rats
arrived its population rapidly declined. It was presumed extinct for almost
a century, until one was found off the Chathams in 1979.
The Taiko is still so scarce the only
photograph that could be found shows a rather unhappy specimen perched on a
table, surrounded by coffee cups. (The photo had to be cropped for
publication, as it was felt the cups did not accurately reflect the Taiko's
New Zealand is one of the world's great seabird centres: Three-quarters of
the world's albatross, penguin and petrel species are found here.
"It's also the shag capital of the world -
we have 13 or14 species, half of all the shag species in the world," says
Parkinson. Australia, by comparison, has a mere three.
This great diversity came about thanks to
New Zealand's many offshore islands, and - until the arrival of humans - the
lack of mammalian predators, which allowed seabirds to nest as far as 100km
"The Field Guide to New Zealand Seabirds
is a book everyone should buy," he says.
"All New Zealanders should have an understanding of the unique wildlife that
surrounds us..." Parkinson glares at the reporter's notebook, tugs at an
unkempt silver beard, and scowls.
"You're not writing that namby-pamby crap are you? What should I care if
anyone buys it?" he says.
It's hard to know when Parkinson is pulling
your leg, and when he's deadly serious. Even his least pleasant memories are
delivered as barbed jokes, as self-deprecating anecdotes.
But not everyone gets the jokes. Parkinson recalls an amusing evening almost
40 years ago when he was invited to speak at a meeting of the Forest and
Bird Society. He has not been invited since.
"A friend and I decided to talk about an
expedition to the Caribbean and the fascinating wildlife we'd seen, such as
the Rosy-bottomed Pushover, the Gimlet-eyed Titwatcher, the Furtive
Nutscratcher and the Lesser Woolly Pervert. Of course we'd never been
anywhere near the Caribbean and the account was entirely fictitious," says
Parkinson's workplace is a modest home he
shares with his sister Robyn in the Auckland suburb of Mt Roskill - a
household where scholarship takes precedence over dusting. Shelves sag under
the weight of books; carved masks stare from the walls; a giant fossilised
crab battles for space on the mantelpiece with a bronze Buddha and a Tibetan
monk's leg bone.
Parkinson, clad in jeans and a T-shirt of
indeterminate colour, runs a hand through tangled black hair and the story
begins. This is the life of Brian.
Born in Opotiki in the eastern Bay of
Plenty in 1944, Parkinson was the middle child of three. His father was a
farmer and stock dealer; his mother the town's librarian and keeper of
"She didn't let anyone order any dirty
books. You had to ask for anything you wanted at the desk in a loud, clear
voice," he says.
His sister Robyn remembers his kindness to
animals, how he would sometimes appear at her convent school cradling a
hedgehog rescued from the road. Parkinson credits his grandfather, a man who
dedicated himself to caring for ailing penguins and rescuing kiwis from gin
traps, with his love for nature.
The young Parkinson and his sisters were
the only Catholic children in the district, at a time when religious
animosity still ran deep:
Catholic dogs, sitting on logs,
Eating bellies out of frogs.
At the age of 12, loyal to family
tradition, he was sent to Sacred Heart College, a Catholic boarding school
in Auckland. It was not an experience he would recommend to anyone.
"It made you terribly pessimistic about
human nature - and in those days physical abuse was just part of the
curriculum," he says.
When Parkinson finished fifth form, he returned to Opotiki to help run the
family farm. His father's drowning two weeks later changed all that.
After drifting from farm to farm as a herd
tester and artificial breeding technician, he joined the Wildlife Branch
(now the Department of Conservation) and dropped out of Victoria University
in his third year. In 1965 he became NZBC science reporter for the
television station AKTV2.
Parkinson left New Zealand at the age of
23, the beginning of two decades of travel that would take him to more than
100 countries - his passport is thicker than some provincial telephone
He started out in Australia as an opal
miner and landscape gardener in Alice Springs (which, given the climate,
involved little more than shifting cacti around). That was followed by a
"very un-PC" job prospecting for uranium by plane.
"We'd fly about 300 feet above the ground,
and my job was to take radiation readings. When the readings shot up I'd
have to try and work out where we were on the map."
Fortunately, says Parkinson, his
map-reading skills at the time were such that he doubts any of the uranium
deposits were ever found. His days as a uranium hunter were finally brought
to an end by an evening's overindulgence in the local brew.
"I'd had a hard night, we were flying at
200 feet, going up and down, and I felt rather queasy. The pilot said we'd
land for a while in a dry riverbed we could see just ahead, and that it'd be
a 'piece of piss' - but even in my delicate condition I could see it wasn't
a suitable landing ground."
Those misgivings proved well founded when
the plane hit an unseen watercourse, flipped several times and burnt out.
"And after all that I didn't even throw up," says Parkinson.
Forced to seek alternative employment, Parkinson took a job prospecting for
minerals in what was then the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, where he
spent much of the next 15 years.
"Working in those remote areas really
cultivated my interest in nature - it was so fascinatingly untouched and
primeval," he says.
At that time much of the island was still a
restricted area, and many of its tribesmen had never seen a European. The
prospectors were to be accompanied by a patrol officer and six policemen at
all times, but Parkinson's never showed up. Despite that, he says, he only
ever got into "one or two minor scrapes."
Parkinson's supplies were dropped in by
air, and he instructed the villagers never to catch anything falling from a
"Unfortunately, the local headman did try
to catch a 50kg bag of rice dropped from 1000 feet. I thought they were
going to kill me."
Luckily for Parkinson, the deceased's
relatives accepted the apologies and the gifts of axes and bush knives. He
survived, only to get himself into a worse spot while prospecting in the
Star Mountains, near the border between New Guinea and West Irian.
"We were collecting stream sediment samples
at about 8000 feet, and we had to climb up a bank to negotiate a narrow
gorge. The path gave way and I fell back into the river, managing to break
my arm and three vertebrae."
"I lay there for 20 minutes, because all my
merry men had buggered off. When I saw one poke his head around a tree I
sconed him on the head with a rock, to show him I was still alive and
He recalls his fear during the long trek to
a patrol post that his stretcher bearers - clad only in traditional penis
sheaths - would drop him and that he would poke an eye out on their fiercely
pointed attire. Those fears were not realised, but all the same his
prospecting days were 'bugar-up finis', as they say in Pidgin.
In 1974 Parkinson was approached by the government of newly independent
Papua New Guinea to direct a nationwide marine survey. The plan was to train
a team of divers and study whether the country's shellfish and coral
resources could be harvested.
It was then that he penned his Pidgin
classic, Wok Bisnis bilong salim Sel, literally 'work business
belongs selling seashells', a guidebook explaining how to make money selling
shells to Western collectors.
The epic Tropical Landshells of the
World also dates from that period, a book hailed by the British Museum
of Natural History as "one of the great works of malacology" and "a glorious
addition to the literature of conchology".
To the uninitiated, that means it's a bloody good book about snails. It was
written while the author was living in Bangkok and paying the bills by
teaching English to "ladies of negotiable virtue".
Other marine surveys followed in Tuvalu,
the Seychelles and finally Fiji, funded by the UN and the South Pacific
Commission, until the 1987 coup forced him to return to New Zealand.
Now he has devoted himself to helping New
Zealanders understand this country's extraordinary flora and fauna.
"People need to be educated how to treat
wildlife, to give it the respect it deserves."
Parkinson's rules are simple: keep away from birds; don't come between birds
and their nests, or between marine mammals and the sea; don't stay around if
the animal becomes agitated; and, above all, don't touch.
"It's a bit annoying when a penguin comes
out of the surf and someone pops up in front of it from the dunes - the
penguin goes back to the sea for the rest of the day, and the chicks don't
Parkinson has even seen tourists at
Cannibal Bay in the Catlins sitting on sealions to have their photo taken.
"I used to stop them, but now I prefer to
leave it to natural selection," he says.
Habitat loss is another threat to New Zealand's sea and shore birds. The
Firth of Thames is a popular destination for the Godwit, a protected bird
that flies 15,000km from Siberia every summer. The birds return to the same
area generation after generation, even now that one of their favourite spots
on the Thames foreshore is occupied by a shopping centre.
"They're creatures of habit - you can't get
them to start taking their holidays in Whitianga just because someone's
built a shopping mall on their traditional roosting ground. Therefore it
would be a spirited gesture by the people of Thames to have the mall razed
by next summer," says Parkinson, only half jokingly.
Similarly, thousands of Pied Oystercatchers
and a few rare Wrybills (so named because they are the only birds whose bill
bends to one side) make their winter home at a railway marshalling yard in
Otahuhu, in the industrial wasteland of South Auckland.
"Normally they'd be at the shore, but there
they're disturbed by people walking their dogs, by uncontrolled dogs, cats
and weasels. They're safer on the rail depot roof."
Parkinson's current project is a book on
alpine flora and fauna, which involves many a trip to New Zealand's high
places seeking out camera-shy insects and diminutive flowers.
He claims, typically tongue-in-cheek, that
he is sick of climbing mountains at 4am to listen to the dawn chorus, and
hopes his next book will be about species that live in hotel carparks close
to good restaurants.
Otherwise, Parkinson is vague about his
future plans: "I'm still deciding on my career, though I must say my options
are getting fewer."
Published in the New
Zealand Listener, March 2001