Posted by: scribe9 | January 13, 2010

New Zealand is for the birds

New Zealand is for the birds. Really. It split off from Gondwanaland 80 million years ago, and until people started visiting less than a millenium ago, the major animals were birds; there were no snakes, and the only mammals were a couple of species of small bats. Without mammalian predators, flightless birds thrived.

The only predator of the moa, the largest species of which grew nine feet tall, was the largest eagle species that ever lived. After the Maori arrived eight hundred years ago, it only took them about a century to hunt the moa to extinction, and so the eagles died out. The rats and dogs the Maori brought helped killed off another 30 species.

After the Europeans arrived in the nineteenth century and began clearing land, another nine species disappeared, although a couple—the Australasian harrier and the kingfisher—thrived in the more open landscapes.

There are still several species of kiwi and a few other flightless birds around, because people go to a lot of money and effort to protect them. Road signs in kiwi country urge caution at night, when they’re active, and instruct people to leash their dogs. New Zealand luckily has lots of little islands around on which to sequester the kiwis from dogs, rats, and humans. We consider it our duty to see one, and we’ve tried, but the best we’ve done is the stuffed ones at the top of this page.

Whatever else one might say about Mildew Towers, it was a good spot for listening to and watching birds. Most, as with the people we’ve met, were originally from Europe. Song thrushes seemed always to be digging worms out of the lawn, blackbirds sang their lovely songs perched on mailboxes or telephone poles, and house sparrows rustled around in the gutters so loudly that it sounded as if the roof was being torn off. One day a pair of ducks—she a mallard, he of mixed breed—hung out, first under the tree in the neighbors’ back yard, then in our front yard, then under the camellia beyond the fence on the other side, and finally back to our yard. Out and about we’ve seen mockingbirds and far too many mynahs, starlings, and pigeons. Near the beach we’ve seen California quail.

Of the natives, we’ve seen kingfishers

(relatives of the kookaburras, which were themselves imported from Australia a hundred and fifty years ago, although we haven’t seen any here), redbilled gulls,

and pukekos (relatives of swamp hens).

Pukekos don't seem to trip--they lift those big feet carefully


 Our current house is on Tui Crescent, named for the parson bird, with a little ruffle of white feathers at its neck: clearly not starched Geneva tabs. We hear the tuis frequently—sounding as if they’re gargling, or as if a rusty gate is opening—but rarely see them. Occasionally an Eastern Rosella, a bright parakeet that somehow got here from Australia, visits our backyard.

Two natives have intriguing names. The morepork is not a fat pig but a small owl—the only native one, named for its call. The rifleman is a tailless, but not flightless, bird; it’s the smallest native, named because of the shape of its beak.


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