I have tūī in my back garden. Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae to scientists. There are at least three, possibly more, which live in the area and drop in every so often to snack on harakeke (flax) nectar. They also squabble and sing. Loudly. And all of that that is a great luxury to have in the back yard. New Zealand’s indigenous flora and fauna is unique in the world, and it’s been through some tough times. We were very much the ‘lost world’ of Professor Challenger, a snapshot of how things were in the last age of the dinosaurs. Sort of.
I have to say ‘sort of’ because, while a lot of the trees and plants are the ones that flourished in Cretaceous era Gondwanaland, the dinosaurs are what was left after the extinction event some 65 million years ago. Birds. And yes, birds are dinosaurs – that’s their technical classification these days. Specifically, they are a form of coelurosaur. After the K-T extinction event blew a big chunk of animals and plants into extinction, birds remained and spread into many of the ecological niches. Continental drift meant that different regions were isolated from each other and developed differently: the idea that mammals arose world-wide isn’t quite true. Australia was home to marsupials. And New Zealand – ancient Zealandia, which rose and fell above the seas, became a place of birds.
New Zealand remained a place of birds until the thirteenth century, when humans arrived – Polynesians – whose impact on the ecology was like a tempest. The midden heaps that followed didn’t need archaeologists to find them; they were huge. Archaeological work since has identified ovens, preparation sites and so forth. So began the first wave of extinctions which included Haast’s Eagle – the heaviest eagle in the history of the world – all species of moa, the Stout Legged Wren, Scarlett’s Duck, New Zealand swan, New Zealand raven, Hodgen’s waterhen and others. A second wave followed when British settlers arrived during the nineteenth century and destroyed much of what remained of the indigenous bush in which many of the birds lived. The settlers introduced animals such as cats and opossums which ate the indigenous birds or their eggs; and more rare and unique species were destroyed. They included the huia, which is thought to have reached its end in the early twentieth century.
Latest figures suggest a total of 53 bird species have been destroyed since humans first touched New Zealand. Apart from the huia, recent extinctions include the Laughing Owl (1914), Lyall’s Wren (1894), New Zealand Little Bittern (1890s), New Zealand quail (1875), North Island piopio (1955), North Island snipe (1870), North Island takahē (1894), and South Island snipe (1960s) among others.
On the plus side, extensive work has been done to recover the remaining populations. These include the South Island takahē, which was thought to be extinct but rediscovered in 1948. And some indigenous birds are becoming more common even in urban areas. Including, as I discover, the tūī . But it’s still a luxury to see them around.
What rare or unusual birds do you see in your back garden?
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019