Sunday, 8 July 2012

The Conservationist (Part 2)

This is the second part of a short story the first part of which can be found here.

… This is also the only time we get a decent look at the actual colouring of the birds. They won't develop their trademark flame covering until they first take flight. Although they have to ability to breath fire right from the off. Both the males and females have a distinctive flame red beak and bright yellow feathers forming a crest around their face, but the bodies of the males are a shimmering gold in colour whilst the females are a charcoal black. The males have a tendency to attack on sight whilst the females are incredibly docile and actually seem to enjoy being handled but this does necessitate changing from climbing gloves to fireproof gloves on the cliff-face. Even with protective gear it's entirely possible for the chicks to burn you, we believe that their base temperature is it's highest at this stage I think that this is because they can't release the heat by flaming at this point.
In addition to cataloguing the new members of the species we also have to spend a lot of time making sure that the location remains secure. In addition to regular patrols around the area, a few of us take jobs working as guides which allows us to steer walking groups and the like away from the area. Fortunately the cliff itself faces out towards the sea so we only have about a mile and a half of forest to keep clear of visitors, we can't risk anyone seeing a gout of flame on the cliff-face and investigating or worse calling the authorities. We've considered putting up signs and fences up around the site but it was decided it risked attracting more attention than it would dissuade. So we keep roaming the area in an ongoing attempt to keep the secret.
This cycle of surveillance and study continues for three months. In that time the birds develop their full plumage. The feathers on the males are incredible. The half closest to the birds body retain the golden shimmer of the hatchling whilst the rest of the feathers are covered in an intricate pattern of white, blue, yellow and red, the effect is to make each feather appear as if it is wreathed in fire. Most of the people I work with believe these to be some of the most beautiful things in the world but for me they pale in beauty when compared to the feathers of the females. I've heard them described as black but that's not really accurate. They look black under a normal light but if you take them out of the light and view them in total darkness they reveal white speckles. These tiny points of light make the feathers look like the sky on a clear night. They are, in my opinion, the most startlingly beautiful things on this planet.
It has been hypothesised that the darker colouring of the females has developed to allow them to avoid detection during the nesting period, this would fit with the fact that most of the hunting excursions made by the birds are made undercover of darkness whilst the birds are nesting. Prior to the hatching of the eggs the birds mainly hunt other birds, pigeons and such that they snatch on the wing with unerring accuracy. This tactic changes dramatically once the chicks have hatched with the birds hunting more like an owl. Sweeping through the foliage under cover of darkness and hunting mice, voles and other small creatures. These smaller creatures are a lot easier for the chicks to feed on. Where some birds regurgitate predigested food for the phoenix allows their young to tackle each meal themselves this is made quiet easy by the razor sharp beaks the birds hatch with. The chicks are cared for right up until the night of the Autumnal Equinox.
The females leave the nests during the day and won't return for at least six months although most will not be back for at least eighteen months and some will wait another year on top of that. We have no idea why there is this variation but that's an aside. The chicks remain in the nests until darkness. Around midnight the nests fill with flame, not of the same intensity of the hatching but it's still a fairly intense sight. Then within a few seconds of each nest setting on fire the birds launch themselves skyward with an stream of flame tailing behind them. Like a dozen tiny Apollo space rockets. Once they are gone our work is done for another six months. It takes us a week to wind up the operation and then I head off to the Caribbean... This job pays quite well.

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