Save Our Native Birds

Penguin feeding baby
Hoiho Feeding Time by David Brighten

by Tracy Brighten  September 2013
Prize winner at the Massey University Speech Awards 2014  

Maria Montessori’s method of early childhood education had a defining and lasting effect on my family, especially the emphasis on a child’s care and respect for others and the environment.

I’m anxious then that our children are growing up in a society where economic concerns outweigh ecological concerns, where status outweighs values and where self outweighs others. Philosopher Peter Singer condemns this human centeredness – he believes all animals are equal and deserve equal respect.

People often place value on animals based on their value to people, but this ignores value in animals existing for their own sake. People value pets but in our constructed animal hierarchy, wildlife is demoted. And if you take birds, they’re way down the pecking order, but surely birds deserve our care and protection?

Sir David Attenborough thinks so; “What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?”[i]

The bar-tailed godwit is a world record holder and New Zealand is part of its incredible story. In March 2007 these modest looking birds hit the headlines when satellite tagging revealed they flew non-stop for over 10,000 km from New Zealand to Northern China then on to breeding grounds in Alaska.[ii] In September they returned to New Zealand in a direct flight of 11,680 km – the longest journey without a feeding stop made by any animal. During summer you can glimpse these superheroes feeding in the mud flats at Foxton Beach.

If the Minister of Internal Affairs in 1941 hadn’t issued a hunting ban to end mass slaughter, believing this remarkable bird worthy of protection, it may have been a different story. Opponents argued that protection should only be imposed when there is economic importance, scientific value or danger of extermination. The problem with waiting until birds are in danger is that we risk being too late. 

Take a look at the bird immortalised on your five dollar note. The yellow-eyed penguin with its distinctive yellow crown is unique to New Zealand, but sadly one of the rarest penguins in the world. Early settlers brought predators and their fires destroyed coastal forest and scrub. Penguins were forced to nest further inland and adults, eggs and chicks became easier prey for dogs, cats, and stoats.[iii]

If you’re familiar with the Otago Peninsula, you might know the hide at the far end of Sandfly Bay. If you’ve been there at dawn you will have seen these majestic penguins slowly zigzagging down steep rocky slopes to the sea and you will know how unique and special they are. If you’ve been to ‘Penguin Place’ and run through tunnels linking hides as you follow a solitary penguin from the beach through dunes to meet its chick, you will know. And you don’t have to see to know. I’m sure I’ll never see an Emperor penguin in the Antarctic, but just knowing they are there is reason enough to care.

The New Zealand dotterel is another native threatened by habitat loss, predation and breeding disturbance. You may have noticed this wary red breasted bird with bandy legs keeping her eye on you as she hurries across the sand. She may even feign a broken wing to draw you away from her nest. With housing and tourist development, her beach habitat is busier. Her eggs are well-camouflaged in a scrape in the sand just above the high tide mark but easily crushed by people, horses or cars.[iv]

Dogs running off the lead can also crush her eggs, or disturb her as she incubates, or even kill her chicks. Cats take her eggs in daytime and night hunters could pluck her from her nest. Her unfledged chicks are easy prey – one cat can wipe out all the nests near its home in a single night.

If you live near dotterel habitat, keep cats inside, and dog walkers please check restrictions, especially in the breeding season. An egg laid on Motuihe Island has twice the chance of surviving to fledgling compared to mainland areas where predators roam, so it’s worth our effort.[v]

The kiwi is our national icon, yet we could see its extinction on the mainland within 50 years. Dogs are the main killer of adult kiwi in Northland where the average lifespan is 14 years compared to 45-60 years elsewhere.[vi] Around Whangarei, more than 320 kiwi have died from dog attacks in the last 12 years.[vii] That’s 320 we might have saved.

Conservationists work tirelessly on breeding, pest control and research, yet their work can be undone in just one night of rampage. Dogs – whether hunting dogs, farm dogs, or pets – are responsible for 80% of adult kiwi deaths each year. It’s true the population can handle some chick losses, but the death of a breeding adult is far more serious. Because the kiwi doesn’t have a breastbone, even a curious dog not intending harm can cause death.

BNZ, who sponsor ‘Save the Kiwi’ campaign, believe with better awareness the decline can be reversed.[viii] If owners keep dogs inside or in an escape-proof garden, especially at night when kiwi leave their burrows, and if roaming dogs are reported to DOC, kiwi deaths can be prevented. Dogs kill in seconds, but aversion training discourages them from approaching kiwi and is very effective.[ix] Why wouldn’t we take these easy measures to help?

Kiwi chicks are killed by cats roaming in kiwi territory during the breeding season. Owners can’t control where their cat goes at night, and you might be surprised to learn that domestic cats wearing radio transmitters were found to roam up to 20 km from home.[x] Partners in crime, stoats and cats kill a staggering 70% of kiwi chicks before they reach 6 months of age.

It’s a tragedy. Our daughter, a zoologist and passionate birder tells me how gentle and endearing this flightless bird is. She describes the thrill of being in the bush in moonlight, hearing a kiwi call, then seeing this rare bird creep past, foraging as it goes.

Cats don’t just kill kiwi. The average cat kills 13 birds a year. [xi]A WSPA pet survey reveals New Zealand has 1.4 million cats, so the death toll is huge.[xii] Why does this matter? After all you might argue, birds aren’t important, and anyway, cats catch rats don’t they? That may be true, but there are other methods of controlling rats that don’t harm birds, including traps and new poisons, so we don’t need cats to catch rats.

Native birds could disappear forever, but if we’re truly clean and green we must conserve bird life diversity. I’m not suggesting public commentator Gareth Morgan’s cat free society. Pets are part of our culture. But we have a duty and a moral obligation to be responsible pet owners and look beyond the interests of our own household.

Cats are predators. It may be distasteful, but Tiddles is equally at home tearing apart a fledgling dotterel as he is snuggling up on the sofa. Like teenagers, if you let them out all night while you sleep you can’t be sure what they’re up to.

So what can we do to help? The story of Sylvia Durrant, long-time volunteer for SPCA Birdwing now in her eighties, is an inspiring one.[xiii]

Many years ago Sylvia was a nurse and knew little about birds, but she volunteered in her spare time. Her home and back yard have become a hospital filled with cages and feathered patients. Fondly known as the ‘bird lady’, Sylvia visits schools to talk about caring for sick and injured birds and she is a passionate advocate. She knows first-hand the damage cats can inflict and she teaches responsible ownership.

If you have a cat, Sylvia asks you to keep it inside at night and that it wears a collar and bell in daytime. You might think a bell won’t work but bells are effective and reduce bird catch rates by 50%.[xiv] You might say your cat doesn’t hunt, but cats bring home less than one third of their total kill.

Feral cat populations quickly spiral out of control so de-sex your cat to prevent kittens that may become wild. Gareth Morgan condemns the SPCA policy of releasing neutered feral cats on the basis of their right to life.[xv] What about birds’ rights he asks? He has a point. Like the Minister of Internal Affairs, you can save birds by preventing these killing sprees.

Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf is known as ‘The Singing Island’, but there was a time when forest birds were forced to leave and silence fell.[xvi] Early settlers cleared forest for houses, crops and animal grazing. By the time they left, the forest had been decimated.

Thankfully Ray, a lighthouse keeper turned ranger, led the restoration in the 80s and this forested paradise is home to a chorus of species, including the rare takahe, saddleback and stitchbird. Pests have been eradicated and bush boardwalks let visitors see what’s possible with vision, dedication and patience. But there’s work to be done on the mainland.

Every year in October, celebrities campaign for Forest & Bird ‘Bird of the Year’ and the public can vote for their favourite native.[xvii] Past eminent stars include the New Zealand falcon, the kiwi and the kakapo, and you may recall Stephen Fry’s humping encounter with Sirroco that raised him to ambassador status for this critically endangered parrot.

Birders aren’t a weird species huddled in hides, but people who care. Cast your vote and tweet your friends – “birds are cool”. We can join wildlife conservation groups – ‘Kiwis for Kiwi’ website is full of information for volunteers, pet owners, hunters and more.[xviii] We can show our children how to tread softly in nature, how to watch, listen and care. DOC’s website has video clips to inform and inspire tomorrow’s conservationists. [xix] We can set up a feeding table, especially in winter, and a bird bath is a lifeline in summer. We can extend our love for pets to the wildlife in our back yards, on our farmland, in our countryside.

Birds are beautiful. Grab your coat, grab your binoculars, grab your children and get out into the bush. Take your time. Stop, look, and listen. Hear the woosh of the kereru in the tree tops or the tui’s melancholic notes. See the fantail flitting back and forth or the blackbird foraging on the floor. Even in the largest cities you’re never far from nature in New Zealand. Open your eyes to our country’s amazing birds and let their songs into your heart.

[i] Attenborough, David. (n.d.). Retrieved October 08, 2013, from http://www.brainyquote.com/

[ii] Woodley, Keith. (2009). Godwits – Long haul champions. Auckland: The Penguin Group.

[iii] Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.yellow-eyedpenguin.org.nz/penguins/threats-disease-and-predators

[iv] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/birds-a-z/nz-dotterel-tuturiwhatu/

[v] Neate, & Hester R. (2011). Breeding success of northern New Zealand dotterels (Charadrius obscurus aquilonius) following mammal eradication on Motuihe Island, New Zealand. Notornis. 58(1), pp. 17-21.

[vi] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/conservation/native-animals/birds/saving-northlands-kiwi-from-dogs-factsheet.pdf

[vii] Stuff. (2012, February). Kiwi deaths spur reminder to dog owners. Retrieved September 30, 2013, http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/6424474/Kiwi-deaths-spur-reminder-to-dog-owners

[viii] BNZ Save the Kiwi. (2011, August). Owner of Kiwi killing dog ‘sickened’ by bird’s death. Retrieved September 30, 2013, http://www.kiwirecovery.org.nz/news/news/owner-of-kiwi-killing-dog-sickened-by-birds-death.html

[ix] Shivers, Timothy (2013, September, 30). Time to save the Kiwi. New Zealand Herald: Element magazine, pp. 23.

[x] Metsers, E.M. (2010). Cat-exclusion zones in rural and urban-fringe landscapes: how large would they have to be? Wildlife Research, 37, pp. 47–56.

[xi] Van Heezik, Y. (2010). Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation. 143, pp. 121–130.

[xii] WSPA (2011, August) New Zealand Survey Reveals A Nation Of Animal Lovers And Pet Owners. Retrieved September 30, 2013, from http://www.wspa.org.nz/latestnews/2011/NZ_survey_a_nation_of_animal_lovers.aspx

[xiii] Durrant, Sylvia (2009). Personal communication.

[xiv] Gordon, J.K. (2010). Belled collars reduce catch of domestic cats in New Zealand by half. Wildlife Research, 37, pp. 372.

[xv] Morgan, Gareth. (n.d.). The SPCA are releasing cats into the Wild. Retrieved September 29, 2013, http://garethsworld.com/catstogo/

[xvi] Moon, Lynette (1998). The Singing Island. Auckland: Random House.

[xvii] Stewart, Matt. (2013, October, 5). Battle of the Birds. Dominion Post. pp. A20.

[xviii] Kiwis for Kiwi. (n.d). Retrieved October 1, 2013, from http://www.kiwisforkiwi.org/

[xix] Department of Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved October 4, 2013, from http://tvnz.co.nz/meet-the-locals/s2009-e6-dotterels-video-2802910


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About Tracy Brighten

With her passion for nature, health, education, and sustainability, Tracy writes creative content that connects with readers. She helps tell people's stories, build brands, and grow businesses. Thrives on words, birds and enthusiasm. For hire at www.tracybrightenwriter.com.