The Silent World

“It seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned”

These were the word of Captain Cook when he arrived in New Zealand in the end of the 18th century. He referred to the sound of New Zealand bellbirds (Anthornis melanura), a common bird at the time. More generally, New Zealand forests were thought to be much alive with the chatter of birds before human, and especially European, colonization… but this has changed.

Before human settlement, about 85% of the country was covered by forest. Now, native trees cover only about 30% of the land (Click here for a cool, albeit depressing, animation). Large trees were cut down by the wood industry, while the rest was burnt down to create agricultural land, essentially pastures. Of course, wildlife didn’t take it well.

In addition, the introduction of exogenous mammals had a dramatic impact: rats, stoats, possums eat birds and eggs; possums and deer eat vegetation. For millenia, the only land mammals in New Zealand had been bats, so native wildlife had evolved accordingly and didn’t know how to respond to the invasion. Defenceless, species started to decline and disappear.

New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura)

Since the arrival of humans around 1250-1300, when Maori people sailed from Polynesia, at least 51 species of birds have been lost, plus 1 bat, 3 lizards, 3 frogs, 1 freshwater fish, invertebrates, plants…

Nowadays, 74% of terrestrial birds are threatened, like 84% of the reptiles and 76% of the freshwater fish (Source). Worse, in the last 15 years, extinction risk has increased for 86 species! Of those that have seen improvement in the last 10 years, half need active management (the amount of work needed to save the Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) is appalling!) (Source).
As a consequence, New Zealand is the country with the highest proportion of native threatened species in the world (Source, Table S1, PTHR column).

In many a forest, you will not hear a bird singing… or so few. There’s no bird singing at Ship Cove, where Captain Cook first heard bellbirds 200 years ago. The contrast is stark with managed forest (managed meaning that rats, stoats, possums are trapped or poisoned), like Whirinaki, where I was a week ago (turn the sound up in the video below!)

If you want to see native birds, you have two options now. The first one is a visit to an island sanctuary, like Tiritiri Matangi or Ulva Island. There, predators have been removed, allowing the forest (the “bush”) to regenerate. I guess Zealandia would be in this category, as a fenced area. The second option would be an inland forest where predators are heavily managed. I mentioned the Whirinaki, near Rotorua, but such places are found all around the country: along the Routeburn Track, in the Eglinton Valley, in Saint-Arnaud… Their relative remoteness are certainly assets, and high mountain ranges can act as natural boundaries easier to defend against predators.

Both types of sanctuaries involve management of some sort: there are traps on pest-free islands too, to make sure that predators do not establish a new presence after extermination. On the other hand, ecosystems that are under such protection are now flourishing again, so it works!

Further reading: 5 tips for forest bird photography, a guest article I wrote at Digital Photography School.

In most of New Zealand, the dominant songbirds are the introduced Blackbird (Turdus merula), Common starling (Sturnus vulgaris) and House sparrow (Passer domesticus), along with other invaders, but in those forests, the exotic (for a European like me) sounds of bellbirds and New Zealand kaka (Nestor meridionalis) resonated louder, and it felt good.

Hidden there, further, many endemic species struggle for their survival: the Malherbe’s parakeet (Cyanoramphus malherbi) is a range-restricted species doing especially badly, natively surviving only in four Canterbury Valleys and introduced to a few offshore islands difficult to access. There are only about a hundred adults remaining in the mainland, with two to three hundred on islands.

The Yellowhead (Mohoua ochrocephala) is one of the rarest birds in New Zealand, and my bogeybird: in 9 outings, I managed to see them only twice… and got no acceptable image ūüė¶

Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris)

Looking at such a dire picture, you’d think New Zealanders would be devoted to save what’s left (well I would have thought so, but maybe I’m a bit naive). Alas, fed with fairytales like the rescue of Black robins (Petroica traversi) and images of politicians releasing kiwi, some 70% of them think their environment is doing “good to adequate”.

70% of New Zealanders think their environment is doing alright…

Just as troubling are the few odd management practices of the Department of Conservation (DOC), the government agency in charge of all conservation, natural and historical. Are hunting lobbies so powerful that Himalayan tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus, an invasive goat) population can’t be contained to the number defined by the law in national parks? Is tourism so important that a sensitive area like the Franz Josef Glacier should be disfigured by a gondola?

Forest and Bird, the local bird and nature protection society, regularly scolds DOC for this kind of practices, showing just how much an uphill battle nature activists face.

Underfunding? Corruption? Lack of foresight? I cannot judge, but I’m worried.

In 2015, the government committed to Predator-free 2050, an extremely ambitious project to get all New Zealand rid of rats, possums and mustelids by 2050.
New Zealand without introduced predators? That sounds like a dream, given how well ecosystems recover in their absence. It’s also extremely ambitious.

First, about the money: the project has a budget of 84 million New Zealand dollars (50 million euros), but a study from 2017 showed that making the Banks Peninsula (just a tiny portion of the country) predator-free with the tools we have right now would cost between 88 and 134 million dollars. Oops.

Then, the people: locals are usually not too keen on having poison dropped all over the country (we’ll get back to the issue of poison, and especially 1080, in a later article). And remember, 70% of New Zealanders think nature is doing alright in their country… so why would they support such an initiative?

Fortunately, research shows that, when people learn about nature, they start to find it attractive and care about it (Source = Twitter so don’t take my word on that, but if you have more info I’d be happy to know more!). That’s why we need to keep showing the beauty of nature.

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala)

Much closer than that 2050 horizon, DOC is currently looking for an extra 20 million dollars (12 million euros) to prevent massive local extinctions in next year’s predicted mega-mast event.

Mast event?

Regularly, beech and rimu forests release huge amounts of seeds – that’s masting. These events are triggered by a cool summer followed by a warm one, and they have dramatic consequences. With so much seed available, rat populations quickly explode. In response, mustelid populations explode as well, for they have a lot of rodents to eat. But then the seeds disappear, the rats die and the stoats have nothing to eat but native birds. This leads to localized extinctions of sensitive species, like the Yellowhead I mentioned earlier.

Climate change will make these events more frequent, and next year’s mast event is predicted to be the biggest one in more than 40 years. DOC is preparing its most ambitious predator control plan ever, but they are still short on money. In the meantime, “generous” donators (some that may evade all taxes for a couple of years thanks to their donations [fr]) pledged about a billion euros in just one day to reconstruct Notre-Dame.

Our planet is dying. Isn’t it time to reconsider our priorities?


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