(‘The Very Dab’ is a Scots’ expression which in my experience has meant ‘the perfect finishing touch.’)
Way back at the beginning of our world, they do say that God had a walk around when he had finished and was well pleased with what he saw. The sun was shining. The rivers were flowing. Tall trees and lush plants waved in the cool breeze.
He stopped to watch some birds drink nectar from blossoms. He smiled at the antics of more of them, as they fluttered in the river shallows, flapping, dipping and drinking.
It struck Him then that the birds were hard to see clearly. They were different sizes but they all came in various shades of browns, perhaps with shadowy grey or white underneath. They all had the same short, straight beak, too. Now that wouldn’t do. He’d gone to a lot of trouble to make each animal unique. Surely the birds needed the same.
He asked Gabriel to summon every type of bird from around the world and have them gather at dawn on a certain day on top of the highest hill in Canberra. He had a plan to make them all look different and marvellous.
On the appointed day, Gabriel had his list ready. The raucous Australian contingent was there first but soon settled and made room for birds from all over the world. Gabriel ticked off thousands of arrivals. When a Cockatiel suddenly made off with the paper list and ripped it to shreds, Gabriel decided that surely every bird had arrived and went to tell God “All here.”
He came up the hill laden with a bulging sack and a satchel full of paintboxes and brushes. His paints were of the self-perpetuating kind – they’d never fade or wear off and their hues would be passed on through the generations.
God opened his arms in welcome and told the birds they could all choose their own colours as well as a new beak to suit their needs. The birds got so excited many launched into the air. Those still on the ground formed an orderly queue behind a lorikeet that had been dozing in front but soon woke up and squawked. “I want green, red, yellow … a blue head and collar and a red curved beak.”
God painted it all the colours of the rainbow. Next a large cockatoo ambled up and screeched, “Black, black, black and a big black beak shaped like a crab’s claw on top. I’ve got nuts to crack and sticks to beat, “ stammered the parrot as two scarlet cheeks promptly appeared.
One sweet little bird wanted “A long pointed black beak and a mask to match. Oh … and lots of turquoise and a sunny, golden chest.”. As God searched in his sack, He suddenly pulled out an enormous, saggy beak.
“Oh my, here’s a mistake! I can’t think of a bird who’d be able to use this.” From the back of the crowd came a cackle, “I can! Make it pink and it’s mine!”
God signalled for the big bird to come forward and all watched in awe as the great pink bill was hooked on and then layers of plumage splashed white, then black. The gathering stared silently as the cumbersome bird bowed its head and then turned to lope towards the crest of the hill. The crowd held its breath, then cheered loudly when it took off majestically.
The black beak and mask for the Bee-eater was much easier to fix.
The peacock made very particular requests. “Please could my colours be jewelled greens and blues, with shades of topaz and amethyst in radiating patterns in my tail, just so.” The Painter miraculously made this bird’s wishes come true in a flash.
Can you imagine your favourite bird asking for what they wanted?
As the sun began to sink towards the horizon, there were very few birds left. there was just a little paint and God told them they could help themselves. The Fairy Wren dashed into the blue and came out looking superb, while the Galah frolicked in the white, red and black and came out pink and grey. When the last of the flock had gone, God and Gabriel packed up and walked down to the creek to wash up.
“That’s improved the birds, no end,” said Gabriel. God nodded and sighed.
As they stood looking at the sunset, they heard a thrashing in the bushes nearby. A bird flapped wildly through and called from a close branch.
“Oh no! Oh no! Am I too late? Nobody told me this was happening. I don’t see other birds very often and the painted woodpecker gave me such a fright! “
“Oh, hello,” said God, looking round for his paints.
“This little shy one only sings at night. “ Gabriel looked up, worried, as he searched through paintboxes.
“I’m sorry. It looks like there’s no paint left,” replied the angel as he turned to look more closely at the little brown bird as it hung its head.
In the growing dark, God told the Nightingale to come closer and held up his pointing finger. The bird fluttered over and landed there.
“Don’t despair, little one. I have found just enough on this brush. Now, open your beak for me.” When the bird did so, God put the last dab of gold on its tongue.
The sharp taste startled the Nightingale. It flew off into the bushes. It was hard to make out where it had gone. Suddenly, the most glorious birdsong floated up into the night air. No-one in the world had ever heard anything like it before.
“Ah,” said God. “That worked. Nightingale is happy now.” He and Gabriel stood to listen for a while and then went home.
So … they do say that is how the Nightingale came to sing so gloriously. When people hear one singing in the distance they stop, wherever they are and listen. They forget what they’re in the middle of but remember, ever afterwards, how that Nightingale’s song made them feel.
‘The Very Dab’ adapted by Meg Philp from “The Nightingale” by Richard Adams in The Iron Wolf and other stories. London, Penguin, 1980 pp. 111-115.
The word “Canberra” is popularly claimed to derive from the word Kambera or Canberry, which is claimed to mean “meeting place” in Ngunnawal, one of the Indigenous languages spoken in the district by Aboriginal Australians before European settlers arrived, although there is no clear evidence to support this. ( Source – Wikiwand)
Birds in story order
Superb Fairy Wren
There are more marvellous photos of all of these birds on the www.
All text and photos by Meg
Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp Copyright © under Australian Law.