By Denis O’Connor

Wharfedale Naturalists Society

I WAS intrigued to read recently that, for the past 14 years, New Zealanders have voted for a Bird of the Year with no bird having won twice. In 2018, 48000 votes were cast, the highest number so far.

On this occasion the winner was the New Zealand pigeon or kereru to give it its Maori name, a big blue-black and white bird common throughout the islands and important as a dispenser of seeds from fruiting trees, a habit to which it occasionally falls victim, tumbling drunk from trees after eating fermenting fruit.

The pigeon is doing better than many of New Zealand’s native birds which, having developed in isolation in an environment completely without mammalian predators, were totally unprepared for the onslaught of humans and the animals that accompanied them.

Polynesians, arriving about 800 years ago, brought with them dogs and rats which combined with hunting to cause the extinction of about 37 birds, most notably all ten species of giant flightless moas. Europeans, settling from about 1800, made the situation even worse through habitat destruction, hunting and the introduction of more non-native mammals with stoats, brought in to control rats, the most destructive. A further 19 species became extinct with many more still hovering on the brink.

Second in the vote came the kakapo, a large flightless nocturnal parrot which only breeds about once every four years. It formerly occurred in forests throughout the country but is now confined to a few offshore islands from which mammal predators have been exterminated. A breeding programme, involving removing eggs from nests and hatching them in incubators before returning each chick to its mother, has increased breeding success but even so the total population is less than 150.

A similar method is used to support the population of the bird placed third in the vote, the extremely rare black stilt.

On a wildlife trip around New Zealand two years ago, seeing a kakapo was a non-starter with only scientists and volunteer workers allowed on to their breeding islands but we did see black stilts. At one point, with 27 of them in my telescope, I was looking at 10% of the world population, a sobering thought. My photo shows a pair behind a much more common black-winged stilt beside a lake in the centre of South Island.

Innovative and dedicated conservationists are bringing the kakapo and the black stilt back from the edge, while doing the same for many of New Zealand’s other vulnerable birds and it is inspiring to see their efforts being rewarded with much greater public awareness and support for their country’s unique wildlife heritage.