Bio-Protection Research Centre
We are midway through one of the most important electoral contests of the year: Bird of the Year. Every year, this popular campaign raises awareness of New Zealand’s native birds and the perilous state many populations are in.
At the Bio-Protection Research Centre we also think it’s a great opportunity to get people thinking about how birds help to make the world go round.
Birds offer obvious, and sometimes less obvious, ecosystem services – sometimes called nature’s services.
Ecosystem services are usually defined as ecosystem function plus value to humanity. For example, most people believe birds reduce pest numbers significantly, although this has only occasionally been demonstrated.
But value to humanity is not always economic – it often includes a contribution to human wellbeing. On the Canterbury Plains, for example, to hear a bellbird is uncommon, but a source of joy. We are reminded of the words of the English poet William Blake: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.”
With that in mind, here are some of the positive and negative criteria we hope will influence voting in Bird of the Year.
1. Does this bird eat insect pests? (+ve)
While it has only occasionally been shown that birds can significantly reduce insect pest numbers, some of our birds are voracious insect eaters. For example, the midge problem associated with
Christchurch’s Bromley oxidation ponds could perhaps be ameliorated somewhat if nest boxes for welcome swallows were installed. Other native birds that might help are fantails (pīwakawaka), grey warblers (riroriro), tui, and bellbirds (korimako).
2. Does this bird eat introduced mammalian, avian, or aquatic pests? (+ve)
Rats, mice and stoats cause enormous damage in New Zealand ecosystems. This is where our native raptors get a big tick: New Zealand falcon (kārearea), harrier hawk (kāhu), morepork (ruru), and even the very recent newcomer, the barn owl. You might also give weka a tick, as they’ve been known to kill animals as large as stoats.
3. Does this bird eat plant pests? (+ve)
We put this in our criteria, but it’s not a strong suit for New Zealand native birds. Some ducks and other freshwater birds eat aquatic weed plants, but are not known to significantly reduce them. Brown teal, pūkeko, and spotless crake could get a tick if you were feeling generous.
4. Does this bird spread plant pest seeds? (-ve)
Quite a few of our native fruit and seed-eaters are guilty of this. You may have to take a point off kererū, bellbird, and silvereye (tauhou).
5. Does this bird spread native plant seeds? (+ve)
And now you can give those points back, because of course kererū, bellbirds, and silvereyes spread our native seeds as well. Kererū particularly redeem themselves here, as being the only birds in many parts of the country able to spread larger seeds. Kōkako can spread some larger seeds – but we need more of them to help kererū out. Tuī also get a favourable mention, as do most of our forest birds.
6. Is this bird a primary pollinator of native plants? (+ve)
Many of New Zealand’s native plants evolved to be pollinated by birds. The New Zealand honeyeater family contains two of New Zealand’s best-known bird pollinators, tuī and bellbirds. Other pollinators include the saddleback (tīeke) and even kākā.
7. Is this bird an ecosystem engineer? (+ve)
If a bird is any ecosystem engineer, it changes the structure and function of its ecosystem. This is where our seabirds come into their own, by taking nutrients from the sea and distributing them on land. That’s a tick for albatrosses, petrels, shearwaters, seagulls, and penguins. (Ecosystem engineering can also be negative, but we’re accentuating the positive!)
8. Do we owe this bird big time, because it’s in serious danger thanks to the pests WE introduced?
(That’s a big fat -ve in the real world, but a +ve for voting, AKA the sympathy vote)
Sadly, many of New Zealand’s native birds get a tick for this one. Indeed, any bird that’s categorised as “In some trouble” or “In serious trouble” qualifies. That’s 41 out of the 61 birds listed – or 67%.
9. Has this bird already won #BOTY at least once, and should it give another bird a go? (-ve)
Take one point off your tally for kea, kōkako, bar-tailed godwit (kuaka), fairy tern (tara iti), mohua (yellowhead), kārearea, pūkeko, orange-fronted parakeet (kākāriki karaka), kiwi, kākāpo, grey warbler, fantail, and tuī.
Bird of the Year is a great way to raise awareness about our native birds, but we need to do more. All over the world land-use changes are the biggest cause of declining bird populations. It’s no different here. We need to actively protect and increase our native bird populations, so they can all be birds of the year, all year round.