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An emoji report card on the state of our native birds

If our native bird species could text the New Zealand public and let us know how they’re doing, what would they say? Forest & Bird’s Kimberley Collins decodes the stats from a new report.

Yesterday the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released a new report on the “desperate situation” our native birds face. Because I tear up at the thought of kiwi chicks being killed in their burrows and albatross drowning at the end of fishing lines, I turned to what every other millennial uses to articulate their feelings – emoji.

Overall, our native birds are not in a good state. 80% are in trouble, and 1 in 3 are not far from following the moa into extinction.

This report card gives you an idea of how our birds are doing. The idea is that each emoji represents one of our native bird species. If they could text us to say how they’re doing – this is the one they would use. If they’re smiling, it means they’re doing OK. If they’ve got a tear in their eye, they’re in some trouble. If they’re crying their eyes out, they’re in serious trouble.

Seabirds

Includes: albatross, mollymawks, petrels, shearwaters, storm petrels, prions, gannets, boobies, penguins, tropicbirds.

What many don’t realise is that we live in the ‘seabird capital of the world’. A third of the world’s seabirds live or breed in our waters and thirty six of those breed nowhere else.

New Zealand was once filled with bustling colonies of albatrosses, penguins, shags, petrels, albatrosses, terns, and skua. At dusk, the sky along our coasts would be dark with millions of seabirds returning to their burrows after a long day foraging for food at sea.

Today, it’s a different story and tragically more than half of the seabirds that breed in our waters are threatened with extinction.

Despite all this, the Ministry for Primary Industries does little to prevent 15,000 birds dying every year in commercial fisheries by being caught in fishing nets and hooked on long-lines.

The report has called for better monitoring of seabirds caught as bycatch and stronger enforcement for those who break the rules. As the ‘seabird capital of the world’, shouldn’t we be leading the world in conserving this unique but often overlooked group of birds?

Forest Birds

Includes: perching birds, parrots, kiwi, pigeons, cuckoos, ducks.

A healthy forest in New Zealand should be heaving with the sounds of birds as they forage for food, attract mates, and defend their territory. At dawn, their chorus would be deafening – or so said Captain James Cook and his crew when they visited New Zealand for the first time.

Sadly, many of our forests have fallen silent and the idea of birds as our alarm clocks is but a distant dream. Introduced mammalian predators like rats, stoats, cats, and possums are the biggest threat to forest birds. Every year, they kill 25 million of our native birds – that’s an average of 68,000 a day..

This new report tells us that aerial 1080 remains the most effective tool for significantly reducing pest numbers and allowing native forests and wildlife to thrive – especially over large areas.

The biggest challenge after any predator control is keeping them out of the area after an operation. More research needs to go into extending the time it takes for predators to re-invade an area, whether that be by repeating aerial 1080 operations or with strategically placed traps.

Given that our Department of Conservation is critically underfunded, we don’t currently have the resources to properly protect our birds with large-scale predator control.

Putting money towards one-off operations to control predators during beech masting events, when food is abundant for predators, may help to ease the pressure on our native birds, but it isn’t sufficient to arrest overarching declines in many of our forest bird populations.

Field, river and coastal birds

Includes: Birds of prey, rails, ducks and swans, grebes, herons, bitterns, spoonbills, kingfishers, shags, waders, gulls, skuas and terns.

This group is a jumble of birds that, as its name says, are most commonly seen in our open country and fields, in rivers and lakes, and on our coasts.

Along our braided rivers, you will find a surprising number of birds. This shy and understated group are like a secret society that only make themselves known when you get too close to their nest. Their dull plumage makes them perfectly camouflaged against their river-bed habitat and they lay their mottled, stone-like eggs amongst the riverbed – both are adaptations to avoid being killed by aerial predators.

Like many of our birds, they are in desperate need of suitable habitat. Their rivers are being taken over by introduced weeds, people are driving along them in 4WDs, and when it comes to water quality – well, we all know that’s degrading rapidly.

In our open country, and along our coasts, some birds can fly between isolated patches of habitat  but others become trapped in patches of habitat. The report suggests creating “wildlife corridors” to link up fragments of habitat for birds and other wildlife. Already, we have about 7,500 kilometres of wildlife corridors in New Zealand, but more are needed.

An example of this is already happening in Auckland where the North-West Wildlink has created a corridor of habitat from the Waitakere Ranges to the Hauraki Gulf. And in Wellington, people live in harmony with native birds like kākā, tui, and tieke thanks to the halo effect of Zealandia’s fenced sanctuary.

We have to act quickly to reverse this desperate situation – but how?

This new report says our native birds need three things to survive – safety from the introduced predators that are killing them, suitable places for them to live, and enough genetic diversity to avoid inbreeding and ensure long-term resilience.

The report points directly at the underlying issue affecting our birds – that many government departments aren’t properly funded or directed to protect the environment.

If the Government were serious about saving native birds from extinction, it would properly fund the Department of Conservation and take a genuine all of government approach to prioritising the conservation of our unique native species.

Because if they don’t – well our 🐦 = 😵.


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