Guest bloggers: Co-campaign managers for the Fernbird, Kent Xie and Michael Coote
We strongly advocate for the Fernbird (Bowdleria punctata to science, Matata, Kotata or Toetoe to Maori, and swamp sparrow to early European settlers) to be elected Forest & Bird’s Bird of the Year.
This endemic, once widespread and abundant bird of wetlands and low tangled scrub urgently deserves more public attention.
About 18 cm in length, the fernbird is rich brown above, paler below, and heavily streaked and spotted dark brown over the throat and breast. The forehead and crown are chestnut and there is a white eyebrow stripe. Half of the bird’s length is made up of frayed-looking brown tail feathers, which it droops characteristically when in flight.
Although the fernbird is known as a weak flier, juveniles do travel (not a great distance) to set up new territories.
Fernbirds live in pairs and from their dense scrub habitat typically call out to each other in a duet, making a high-pitched, metallic “u-u-u tic, tic” sound.
“It’s one of the most beautiful bird calls I can ever imagine,” recalled Matuku Reserve’s Ranger John Staniland (also chairman of F&B Waitakere) of his amazing experience from the Bethells Swamp boardwalk.
“I stood right in the middle between a pair of fernbirds calling out to each other from either side,” he said. “It was such a sensational synchronised duet!”
The fernbird mainly feeds on small insects and both parents feed the chicks.
It is a shy and secretive bird, but this habit of hiding away from threats is probably what has enabled it to survive against horrendous odds where other New Zealand endemic bird species have fallen by the wayside. Sadly its Chatham Islands cousin Bowdleria rufescens is believed to have become extinct around 1900 thanks to bird collecting and habitat destruction.
Although given to hiding, fernbirds are naturally curious and when you click small stones together or mimic their high pitched calling sound in their habitat, they will often poke their heads out of the scrub to have a look and then quickly disappear again.
Maori knew the fernbird as “the wise bird” because of it’s ability to warn them about impending troubles or foretell good fortune depending on how its cry changed (nzbirds.com).
We owe the fernbird a huge debt of gratitude because when government land was being transferred to the then new Department of Conservation, fernbird presence was often the one criterion that allowed wetlands to be conserved.
Nearly 90% of New Zealand’s wetland area has been lost since the early 1800s, and many remaining lakes and wetlands are degraded from the effects of farming: burning, wetland drainage, chemical spraying, and fertiliser runoff from surrounding farmland.
Voting for the fernbird as Bird of the Year is more than just about a bird, it’s about raising public awareness of the unique conservation values of the fragile wetland environments the fernbird lives in.
Putting the spotlight on the fernbird for once could attract much needed attention to wetland protection and restoration. This kind of conservation activity has seldom been seen as glamorous like Kauri forest regeneration, Kakapo breeding, Kiwi monitoring, Kokako releasing, etc.
So let the fernbird have a go at becoming Bird of the Year and the mascot for wetland conservation.
From Kaitaia to Stewart Island, every F&B branch surely has threatened wetlands or low scrublands in its area, meaning every branch is likely to have fernbirds dwelling on its patch.
Vote the fernbird for “Bird of the Year” so we can honour this distinctive endemic species, attract more attention to wetland restoration, and save the threatened fernbird’s habitat before it’s too late!
Kent Xie and Michael Coote