How ‘The Bird Lady’ saved thousands of birds, and how you can too!

For more than 35 years, if anyone in the East Coast Bays found an injured bird, there was only one thing to do: take the wee critter to Sylvia Durrant in Rothesay Bay. The Bird Lady was an adored and much-respected member of the Bays community. It’s estimated that she saved more than 140,000 birds! In 2017, Campbells Bay residents even paid for a sculptor to create six bronze kororā to celebrate her and her friend Annwyne Standish’s work rehabilitating penguins.

Sylvia and the Birds

Photo credit: K Beaumont

Sylvia stepped back from bird rescue in July 2018. (In fact, she gave one of her last interviews to ShoreLines August/September, just a few days before announcing her retirement.) Her amazing legacy is celebrated in a new book by Johanna Emeney and cartoonist Sarah Laing.

Part graphic biography, part practical guide to protecting our native birdlife, Sylvia and the Birds begins with the story of a young girl from tough and humble beginnings, in foster care for several years and feeling like a “nobody”. However, when Sylvia and her sister won a regional competition with St John Nurse Cadets, her fortunes took a turn for the better. “It made me believe in myself,” she recalls, and inspired her to undertake formal nursing training. She was well and truly on her path of a lifetime of caring for others. Photo on pg 31

Johanna says that Sylvia’s childhood experiences were one of the key motivators for the book – because no young person is “nobody”. “I wanted to use Sylvia’s own words and turns of phrase telling this story, to preserve that essence of who she is and the times she’s lived through.” This gives the book a rich vocabulary, which Johanna hopes younger and older readers will appreciate together.

Amongst the book’s characters is a young man called Charlie, who was, in fact, one of the Bird Lady’s army of young helpers. Once a week, early morning before school, Charlie’s nan would drive him from Whangaparaoa to Sylvia’s. “By the time I was 12 or 13, my friends called me ‘The Bird Guy’!” he says. Obviously, Charlie has always been a caring soul. Still, this time with Sylvia arguably nurtured his vocation and helped shape his career: Charlie is now the monitoring technician for Te Korowai o Waiheke (Towards Predator Free Waiheke) and spent nine months volunteering on Kure Atoll working on habitat restoration, marine debris collection, seal, and seabird monitoring.

“My favourite bird is the albatross,” he smiles. “There are tens of thousands on Kure Atoll, and they’re so noble but also joyous, curious and goofy! Each species has its own little dance, and sometimes they do this for a potential mate in the other species – who just wanders off, unimpressed!” (You can find a photo of Charlie with his beloved albatrosses in the book.)

Sylvia and the Birds is a delightful publication – a love letter to Aotearoa New Zealand’s beautiful wildlife, a reminder of our shared responsibility for its guardianship, and, most of all, an appreciation of an extraordinary lady.

Sylvia and the Birds is available to buy locally from Whitcoulls, Paper Plus and independent store, The Booklover, plus the usual online outlets.

Sylvia and the Birds