April 05, 2004

Noddy in Nauru

“Just bite down, not too hard, until you hear its vertebrae snap under your teeth.”

I did, and handed back the limp black bird.

Let’s rewind.

I’d come upon noddy holes when I was jogging, platforms perched above the bush on the stacatto teeth of phosphate pinnacles, surrounded by feathers, worn carpets, and occasionally, an old couch. I’d assumed they were drinking holes, which, for the most part, they were. Nauru is literally littered with its history -- guns and bunkers from Japan’s occupation during World War II, rusted air conditioners from Nauru’s brief fling with wealth during the Phosphate boom -- and it was good to discover that some of the refuse down those paths was evidence of a living part of their culture, rather than remnants of foreign exploitation.

I spent a week on the little island of Nauru, and while this central-Pacific atoll is on almost no tourist’s itinerary (for understandable reasons to be explained shortly), it is one of the most unforgettable places I have ever been... Nauru is a big circle that takes four hours to walk around (but bring a stick, as the dogs are vicious). It is surrounded by pristine waters teeming with fish. I watched one family fishing on a Sunday afternoon, and the process consisted of lowering a ringed net into the ocean and after no more than a minute’s wait, lifting it out slowly, hopping with fish they stuffed into every container available: pockets, beer bottles, even their mouths.

The interior is a different story. A long time ago, Nauru was just a coral reef underwater. As the sea-level sank and the coral grew, the pinnacles of coral broke the surface to form an island. Eventually these pinnacles filled with ocean-deposits, bird guano, and a thin layer of topsoil to create the Nauru we know today.

Or rather, the Nauru we knew until machines the size of houses dug out 70% of the land-mass to make fertilizer. It turns out those deposits were incredibly rich in Phosphate, so for a decade or so Nauru had a GDP up there with Sweden and the U.S. Hence the rusted air conditioners and gutted cars in a country that now has little petrol or electricity. The Phosphate ran out, the money squandered on failed investments (including, amazingly, a broadway musical about Leonardo DaVinci that lasted less than a month), air-conditioners, cars and, from what I could see, DVD and Sega. They now make money housing Arab refugees waiting to get into Australia and New Zealand. I swam with a group of them one evening as they bobbed in the blue-green ocean in matching life-vests, watched over by one of the Australian security guards filling the hotel in town that owns the island’s only taxi.

It feels like Mad Max in Paradise, after the war. The fruit store’s only produce was eggplant and onions, imported. The bank has no money; I had to bring in everything I might spend. And I love this little, devastated island. I wish we could all send aircraft carriers full of dirt to fill in the gaping maw that was once an island.

But back to the Noddy Bird. The Noddy Bird is a symbol of Nauru. According to David, a "Noddy Bird Pro" with a gravelly voice like a movie mafioso, Nauru is the only country that hunts them. In days of yore, hunters would train the first Noddy Birds they caught, taming them to sit on perches in the bush attracting more birds with their song. Nowadays they use recordings of the birds in casette-players.

It had just rained as we drove out to the bush on motorcycles, the sun dropping as we found our perches, strung up our nets, and popped the tops of our first bottles of XXXX. I could see the black silhouettes of noddy birds collecting in trees in the distance. The sky was fringed in green, the beer was cold, and the only sounds I heard were the calls of the birds and our tape player, and a gentle rustling in the bushes behind. My feet rested in a soft bed of feathers.

“Do you feel a sort of tingling in your ankles?” asked one of my hosts.

I did.

“It’s lice from the feathers, hear that rustling?”

I did.


So I was more than eager when it was my turn to stand on the perch waving that long net at blurs against the night sky. I was nervous, afraid of missing and scaring the other birds from the other hunter’s net. I was timid at first, with a lot of false starts.

“Just swing at anything; go for it.”

After a few mad lunges at birds way up in the sky, “Play with the net so you see how high it reaches.”


“Are you a lefty?”


“Ohhh, then its the other way around.”

For those who may one day find themselves hunting noddy bird, correct posture for a right-hander is, knees bent like a wrestler, left foot forward, right hand at the end nearest you, and left further up. The left merely provides support, while the right arm does all the twisting.

A black blur against the marginally less-black sky swept from the left to meet my blur sweeping from the right, and the bird’s clicking song exploded into a frantic cacophony. I was told to sweep the net back and forth to stun it (much like cradling a lacrosse stick four metres long), and then pulled the limp bird out by its feet. A few hard snaps to make it vomit out its inedible bile, and the bird sat limply between my fingers, its little heart beating wildly the only sign it was still alive.

“Kill it, it’s still alive,” came the mafioso’s voice from the dark.


“Break its neck.”

Again, “how?” Other than a 6-inch perch I caught when I was ten, I’d never hunted before.

“Just bite down, not too hard, until you hear its vertebrae snap under your teeth.”

I spit out my gum and did so.

They’re incredibly small birds, smaller than cornish hen. After plucking, singeing off its down, and folding its head to thrust its long, sharp beak through its own chest, you roast the noddy bird in little rolls. The proper etiquette for eating begins with "its ass" (in gravelly mafioso), then the tiny drumsticks. You then jam your thumb under its breast plate and rip the front of the bird from the back. Toss out the big stomach, eat the little heart, livers and small intestines. To cover the strong flavour of organs, finish with the delicious, peppered breast meat.

I know this must sound merely vicious and grotesque, but something about the evening touched me. And it seemed to impress my hosts as well; they said I was the first white person they’d ever seen catch one, "fair linkum." The gravelly voice attributed it to me being "at ease with black ways," because I had lived in Africa for a while. My hosts really opened up to me after I caught that bird, telling me about a secret swimming hole in a cave and recounting stories of bringing Nauruan youth out hunting.

And while the process may seem unnecessary cruel, it takes a lot of work for a few ounces of meat, and brings people together under the stars away from the dusty, rusty remnants of phosphate’s scourge. Perhaps if the mining had been approached in such a slow, sustainable way, Nauru might not have as many broken air-conditioners, rusted cars, and gutted hills.

if this taste of Nauru has got you curious, you can see some photos here and here, and listen to a radio show that features Nauru as well.