Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Raptor inspired ramblings

Howdy folks,

The past few months I've been doing a bit of contract work for the New Zealand Department of Conservation in some of the lovely alpine tussock grassland of Central Otago. With the PhD thesis just a week or two from submission, it's been a very welcome opportunity to get out from behind the desk, and away from the pressure of formatting and editing. 

When I'm travelling, viewing raptors is a particular interest, largely due to the paucity of birds of prey in New Zealand, though also the splendour and majesty they encapsulate (see my earlier post, raptor rapture). We do have an absolute gem, however, in the New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae), as well as the Australasian harrier (Circus approximans). Last year I spent much of the summer radio tracking New Zealand falcons around a wind development site and monitoring their breeding efforts, and just last week I was lucky enough to hear, and then see, a newly fledged NZ falcon while out working. It can't have been long out of the nest, as many of its feathers weren't fully unsheathed, and it was busy preening itself to help the process along. This is the best time of year for watching NZ falcons. The calls of the juveniles make them easy to locate, and the interactions between the adults and the juveniles are fascinating to watch. Most exhilarating are food passes, when the adults will drop food items for the youngsters to catch on the wing. 

New Zealand's raptor fauna wasn't always so depauperate though. Unfortunately New Zealand has the dubious record for having one of the highest extinction rates in the world. Since New Zealand was first settled by people around 800 years ago, 40% of the terrestrial and freshwater bird species have become extinct. Among these is the largest eagle ever known: Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Weighing up to 15kg, with a wingspan up to 2.6 metres, and claws the same size as a tiger's, Haast's eagle must also have been a majestic sight to behold. Unfortunately, competition with the newly arrived human settlers for the flightless, herbivorous birds on which Haast's eagle depended saw it decline, and disappear forever. 

The impacts of human settlement on New Zealand's avifauna doesn't end there though. Seventy percent of the (remaining) terrestrial and freshwater bird species in New Zealand are threatened with extinction. So should we be concerned? If you're reading a blog about birds I'm guessing you'll say yes. As do I. As I pointed out in my my last post (globe trotting birds), birds are a huge part of our cultural identity. Birds are charismatic, visual, and conspicuous representatives of biological and cultural diversity. They feature heavily in iconography and religion, myths and legends: Noah sent a dove from the ark; babies are delivered by storks; birds adorn our bank coins and notes, as well as countless national coats of arms. The examples are endless. While funding for conservation may be dropping in the priority list of governments in tough financial times, failure to invest in the survival of bird species is a fairly profound statement. What is it that we are losing through the ongoing decline and extinction of such prominent icons of our own culture?

So go out, get your bird geek on. And while you're out enjoying the experience, take a bit of time to ponder the place of birds in our own cultural identity. 

New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae)

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