British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by R. E. N. Smith
Wullie the Reef Heron
Reef Heron Stamp
In 1972 I was District Commissioner, Gilberts in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony (now translated into the Republic of Kiribati) and living in a thatch roofed concrete block house at the lagoon's edge on the islet of Betio on Tarawa Atoll. This story has no colonial drama or savage tribes, but commemorates one of the more unforgettable characters in a varied career.

It happened when Wullie irrupted into our life. Wullie was our reef heron, or rather he was the Summers' reef heron. Come to think of it he (or she, for we never knew his/her sex) did not belong to either of us, for Wullie was very much his own reef heron and at no man's beck and call. He was full of character, mostly bad, being pushy, greedy and arrogant.

His life with people began when as a young heron he adopted our neighbours, the Summers. I no longer remember the details of his takeover, but before long it reached the stage where Win Summers had to buy tarabuti (reef sardines) to feed Wullie. Daily he would stalk into her kitchen, take up a position near the fridge and clack his beak at her. He may have considered it an attractive and appealing gesture, but to the non-heron world it looked rather threatening. It always worked and Wullie was a well-fed and contented bird until the awful day of unbelievable human treachery arrived. One morning he marched into the Summers' kitchen in his usual fashion to demand his breakfast, but Win suddenly remembered that she had no fresh tarabuti. She opened the deep freeze, took out a frozen fish and, for Wullie was peremptory in his demands, gave it to him without waiting to defrost it. In reminding Win of this episode she advances in exculpation that she warned Wullie very strongly of the state of Ae tarabuti, and since they were in the habit of having frequent intelligent conversations she had no reason to believe that he would immediately eat the fish.

Alas and alack, there was a quick gulp and the tarabuti disappeared down Wullie's gullet. For a moment nothing happened and then, quite suddenly, Wullie went rigid and all his feathers rose on end - I wonder if herons can get goose pimples? He shook violently, gave Win an outraged glare and, with his feathers still on end, stalked majestically out of the house. A little later Win saw Wullie sitting in a patch of sand in the sun, obviously trying to regain his internal equilibrium and his dignity. Thoroughly disillusioned with Scots hospitality, he abandoned the Summers household, never to deign to honour it with his presence again.

Following this severance of diplomatic relations Wullie moved in on us in the house next door. In this he demonstrated a remarkable courage amounting to recklessness, for our dog Rommel was half boxer and enjoyed a well deserved reputation for ferocity that lost us many friends. Rommel's size, mien, teeth and even his presence were royally ignored by Wullie, much to Rommel's bewilderment, for after all, did not the cats, college teachers and even policemen all flee before him? Not so Wullie, for he took over as of right, being quite sure that the house and all its appurtenances were his. Outside on the verandah we kept a couple of the empty shells of the giant clam. These collected rainwater and one day my wife Liz found Wullie having a bath in one of the shells. He was sitting in the shell on his bottom, with his feet stuck out in front of him like any ordinary Christian in his tub; all that was lacking was the soap, the loofah and the merry song. This may sound unlikely, but Liz took a couple of photographs, and we can therefore prove the story.

Wullie the Reef Heron
Blue and White Reef Heron
Not only was the house his, but he considered that it was intended to revolve around him. He was not content with demanding his food in the kitchen, but widened the scope of his activities to include taking up his stand at the side of the dining table, or, if we were entertaining guests to sandwiches, near a convenient chair, where he waited impatiently for his share of the food. I can still remember the look of disbelieving consternation on the face of an overseas visitor, when his sandwich suddenly vanished from the plate just as his hand stretched out for it.

We did manage to put our foot down to a certain extent, and prevented Wullie from actually taking up residence inside the house, but I think that he did not really appreciate this harsh decision. On one occasion we found him perched miserably on the handlebars of Liz's bicycle which was leaning against the kitchen wall. It was raining and the bike offered a dry perch for a bedraggled and unhappy reef heron. He showed no sign of gratitude as we let him in; he just shook his feathers, marched in and took up his accustomed position by the fridge door again.

As is inevitable with wild creatures, even one as civilised as Wullie, one day he came no more and left us that much the poorer. While I never saw him again, there was a blue reef heron that took up a stand nearby, and since blue and white herons (Egretta sacra) are merely colour phases of the same species, this might have been Wullie, but he never came near us. I can only hope that he (or she) led a long and fulfilled life with a loving spouse, though nothing in his nature seemed to be designed to appeal to another reef heron!

map of British Empire
Tarawa, 1943 Map
Betio Island, Tarawa, 1943 Map
Colony Profile
Gilbert and Ellice Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 68 (October 1994)


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